The taste for biography, if it be not born in you, is quickly acquired. Many and many a person has had it first aroused in boyhood by Franklin’s “Autobiography,”〖H. C., i; and cf. Lecture IV, below.〗 that astonishing book, which enchants you when you are young by its simplicity and its teeming incidents, and holds you when you are old by its shrewdness, its tonic optimism, its candor, its wisdom, its humor. Franklin has done for himself what Defoe did for the fictitious Robinson Crusoe; but his sphere was as wide as Crusoe’s was confined. Follow his fortunes and you will soon be swept into the main currents of history, not in Philadelphia or the Colonies only, but in Europe. And after you have digested the information which Franklin provides so naturally, you will recall again and again the human touches in which his book abounds: his remarks on his marriage: his confession that, when he began to take an account of stock of his moral condition he found himself much fuller of faults than he imagined; his admission that he acquired the appearance of humility though he lacked the reality; the irony of his report of Braddock’s conversation;—but to mention its characteristic passages would be to epitomize the book. Each reader will have his favorites and when he reaches the end of the fragment, with its unfinished sentence, he will regret to part from such a mellow companion. What a treat the world missed because Franklin died before he had narrated his experiences between 1775 and 1785, that decade when, we may truly say that, if Washington was the Father, Franklin was the Godfather of his country.

Perhaps, however, you were led into biography through other channels. The life of Napoleon or of Cæsar, of some painter, poet, man of letters, inventor, or explorer, may have been the first to attract you; but the outcome will be the same. You will feel that you have gained a new companion, as real as your flesh-and-blood intimates, but wittier, wiser, or more picturesque than they; a friend whose latchstring is always out for you to pull; a crony who will gossip when you desire, who will never desert you nor grow cold nor yawn at your dulness, nor resent your indifference. For the relation between you is wholly one-sided. His spirit is distilled in a book, like some rare cordial in a flask, to be enjoyed or not according to your mood. He bestows his all—himself: but only on condition that you supply the perfect sympathy requisite for understanding him.

This relationship between the reader and the dead and gone who have perpetuated themselves in literature is absolutely unique. In all other affairs there must be reciprocity, the interplay of temperaments, the stress of moral obligation; but in this transaction the author gives all, and the reader takes all (if he can) without thought of making returns, and without incurring the imputation of being a sponge or a parasite. If you are a free man, no intermediary stands between you and the author who draws you or repels you according to the subtle laws of affinity. Rarely, rarely among the living is that condition for ideal companionship realized.

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