Autobiography is an important and often very precious product of biography. The common prejudice, that because it is egotistical it must be tedious, does not hold water. The impulse toward self-expression exceeds all others save the instinct of self-preservation. The artist blessed with great talent expresses himself through that talent, whether it be painting or sculpture, literature or eloquence. Let him strive never so hard to be impersonal, the tinge of his mind will color it; the work is his work. Men of pure science discover abstract laws by experimenting with material sterilized as far as possible from any taint due to a personal equation; but this does not lessen our interest in them as human beings. Far from it. We are all the more curious to learn how men, subject to our passions, contradictions and disabilities, have succeeded in exploring the passionless vastitudes of astronomy and the incomputably minute worlds of atoms and electrons.

We rejoice to find Darwin worthy of being the prophet of a new dispensation—Darwin, the strong, quiet, modest man, harassed hourly by a depressing ailment, but patient under suffering, and preferring truth to the triumph of his own opinions or to any other reward.

If self-conceit, or egotism, be rather too obtrusive in some autobiographies, you will learn to bear it if you regard it as a secretion apparently as necessary to the growth of certain talents as is the secretion which produces the pearl in the oyster. If a pearl results, the pearl compensates. And, after all, such conceit, like the make-believe of little children, is too patent to deceive us. It is the thought that they are trying to humbug us into supposing them greater than we know them to be that irritates us in the conceit of little men. But since conceited men have been great, even very great, although this blemish in them offends us, it ought not to blind us to their other positive accomplishments! And how much harmless amusement we owe to such unconscious humorists! When Victor Hugo grandly announces: “France is the head of civilization; Paris is the head of France; I am the brains of Paris,” are we seized with a desire to refute him? Hardly. We smile an inward smile, too deeply permeating and satisfactory for outward laughter. So Ruskin’s inordinate vanity in “Præterita” cannot detract from the iridescent beauties of that marvelous book; it seems rather to be the guarantee of truthfulness.

Whatever may be your prepossessions, you cannot travel far in the field of biography without recognizing the value, even if you do not feel the fascination, of autobiographies, of which in English we have a particularly rich collection. I have spoken of Franklin’s, to which Gibbon’s may serve as a pendant. It discloses the eighteenth-century cosmopolite, placid, rational, industrious, a consummate genius in one direction, but of tepid emotion; who immortalized in a single line his betrothal which he docilely broke at his father’s bidding: “I sighed as a lover,” he writes, “but I obeyed as a son.”

Halfway between the man of pure intellect, like Franklin and Gibbon, and the man of sentiment, comes John Stuart Mill,〖H. C., XXV; and cf. Lecture V, below.〗 in whom the precocious development of a very remarkable mind did not succeed in crushing out the religious craving or the life of the feelings. Newman’s “Apologia,” largely occupied in the vain endeavor to transfuse the warm blood of the emotions into the hardened arteries of theological dogmas, stands at the other extreme in this class of confessions.

Contrast with it John Woolman’s “Journal,”〖H. C., i, 169ff.〗 the austerely sincere record of a soul that does not spend its time in casuistical interpretations of the quibbles propounded by mediæval theologians, but dwells consciously in the immediate presence of the living God.

Our only quarrel with Woolman is that, owing to his complete other-worldiness, he disdains to tell us facts about himself and about his time that we would gladly hear.

In other fields there is equal abundance. Many soldiers have written memoirs; enough to cite General Grant’s, to parallel which we must go back to Cæsar’s “Commentaries.” Authors, poets, men of affairs, the obscure and the conspicuous, have voluntarily opened a window for us. From Queen Victoria’s “Leaves from a Journal,” to Booker T. Washington’s “Up from Slavery,” what contrasts, what richness, what range!

And in other lands also many of the pithiest examples of human faculty are to be sought in autobiographies. To Benvenuto Cellini’s life I have already referred. Alfieri, Pellico, Massimo d’Azeglio, Mazzini, Garibaldi are other Italians whose self-revelations endure. The French, each of whom seems to be more conscious than men of other races that he is an actor in a drama, have produced a libraryful of autobiographies. At their head stands Rousseau’s “Confessions,” in style a masterpiece, in substance absorbing, by one of the most despicable of men.

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