One reason why biography dropped behind in the race for popularity with fiction is that it was taken for granted that the biographer must deal in eulogy only. His subjects were usually marvels—we may almost say monsters—of virtue. Most of us are so conscious of being a composite of good and bad that we are properly sceptical when we read of persons too pure and luminous to cast a shadow. We tolerate the pious fibs carved in an epitaph on a tombstone—the lapidary, as Dr. Johnson remarked, is not under oath; we discount the flattery of the avowed panegyrist, but when the epitaph or the eulogy is puffed out through a volume or two of biography, we balk and decline to read.

Lives of this kind are seldom written nowadays. They are too obviously untrue to deceive any one. Candidates for political or other office may connive at pen portraits of themselves which no more resemble them than Apollo; but these productions, like the caricatures of the day, are soon forgotten. In earlier times, even among English-speaking folk, laudation was the accepted tribute which the lower paid to the higher. Among monarchs, prelates, nobles, generals, poets, artists, or persons of the smallest distinction whatsoever, modesty could not be called a lost art, because it had never been found. And only recently a prime minister, equally cynical and subtly subservient, divulged that even he could not appease his sovereign’s appetite for adulation. In general, however, it is now commonly the fashion to assume the virtue of modesty by those who have it not, and the professional flatterer finds fewer opportunities than formerly. Yet we need only glance at the biographies which have come down to us from the ages most addicted to artificial manners and speech in order to see that these, too, bear the stamp of sincerity. There is always the unconscious record, the expression or tone peculiar to the time, to betray them; and then, few writers have ever been cunning enough to dupe more than one generation—their own.

Nobody need forego the inestimable delights of biography from fear of being the dupe of some devious biographer. It requires no long practice to train yourself to sift the genuine from the false—a branch of intellectual detective work which possesses the zest of mystery, abounds in surprises, and can be carried on at your own fireside.

So inevitably does temperament register itself that it cannot be concealed even in autobiography, which some persons unwisely avoid because they suppose that those who write their lives set out with the deliberate purpose of painting themselves as more wise or virtuous, clever or courageous, than they really were. But though any special incident narrated by a Benvenuto Cellini cannot be verified, the sum of his amazing “Life”〖Harvard Classics, xxxi; and cf. Lecture III, below.〗 reveals to us Cellini himself, that perfect product of the Italian Renaissance in its decline—versatile, brilliant, wicked, superstitious, infidel, fascinating, ready to kill himself toiling to perfect a medal, or to kill a neighbor for some passing whim. Even Goethe, who wrote the most artificial of autobiographies, recomposing the events of his childhood and youth so as to give them sequence and emphasis that belong to a work of fiction, even he, Olympian poseur that he was, could not by this device have hidden, if he had wished, his essential self from us.

We may well dismiss, therefore, the suspicion which has sometimes hovered over biography. The best lives are among the most precious possessions we have; even the mediocre, or those less than mediocre, can furnish us much solid amusement; and there are many biographical fragments which reveal to us the very heart of their subject, as surely as a piece of ore-bearing quartz the metal embedded in it.

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