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THIS collection of biographies and autobiographies of English men of letters has been prepared to serve various purposes.
It is primarily designed to illustrate the varieties of biographical writing. To this end, it includes: first, extracts from notable autobiographies, among which are those of Lord Herbert of Cherbury, Colley Cibber, Gibbon, and Ruskin; second, examples of the method and style of such famous biographers as Izaak Walton, Dr. Johnson, Boswell, Lockhart, Southey, Macaulay, and Carlyle; and third, many complete Lives from the Dictionary of National Biography which represent the work of the most accomplished of modern literary historians.
In the first group, the selections of autobiography exemplify both formal and informal records of life and character. Here may be studied such types as the diary, the letter, the reminiscence, and the memoir. The attention of students should be called to the diversity of mood and style inherent in these types, and due to the moment of writing and the author's mental attitude. For the study of these differences, Pepys's Diary, Swift's Journal to Stella, Carlyle's Reminiscences, and Gibbon's Memoirs offer excellent material. Furthermore, the manner and degree of selfrevelation are to be considered. The comparison of Lord Herbert's vainglorious account of his prowess, or of Colley Cibber's naïve avowal of vanity, with Ruskin's reverent narrative of his great awakening in Italy should prove highly interesting.
When we turn to the second group, the examples of the work of famous biographers, we meet new phases of the art of recording men's lives. Now, the shrewdness with which the author has understood his hero, the justness with which he has interpreted his character, the skill and spirit with which he has portrayed his actions, become matters of fundamental importance. Here, too,
are illustrated the various elements - narrative, dramatic, descriptive, and analytical-which combine to make good biography. Students should note the use of narrative in Lockhart's relation of the death of Scott, and the use of dialogue which is almost pure drama in Boswell's scene between Dr. Johnson and Wilkes. Boswell, again, offers a striking contrast to Izaak Walton in this same matter of dialogue. Where Boswell is most triumphant, Walton is least successful. The discourse of Sanderson in the tavern (see p. 165) lacks the "sweet persuasiveness of the living and naturally cadenced voice" which is never absent from the narrative parts of Walton's Lives. But in Boswell the voice of Johnson is indeed the vox humana. Finally, the analytical element, illustrated by the Character of Pope at the end of Johnson's Life of that poet, may be contrasted with the descriptive element in Macaulay's picturesque account of Fanny Burney's servitude at Court.
The third group of brief, complete biographies of men whose lives and characters are interesting for their own sake leads to the statement of a second purpose of this book.
It is expected, indeed, that a volume including not only selections from famous biographies and autobiographies, but also a large number of Lives reprinted from the Dictionary of National Biography will be of service to both teachers and students of English Literature. To teachers such a collection will suggest ways of enlivening and humanizing the study of literature for their pupils. To students it will make available several of the best Lives in a great work not conveniently accessible to classes of even moderate size. In this practical way, it will furnish material which will enable them to study the relation of an author's life and his work. How close is the relation of life and work, students sometimes forget. It is as unreasonable to deem a book exclusively an isolated entity as to deem it exclusively the embodiment of a movement. Books "do preserve as in a vial," said Milton, "the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them." It was the realization of this human background of literature that led Gibbon to say, "I may judge from the experience both of past and of the present times, that the public are always curious to know the men who have left behind them any image of their minds:
the most scanty accounts of such men are compiled with diligence, and perused with eagerness. If they be sincere, we seldom complain of the minuteness or prolixity of these personal memorials"; and it led Dr. Johnson to declare, "The biographical part of literature is what I love most."
The arrangement of the book deserves a word of explanation. It is fitting that Carlyle's energetic essay on Biography should stand as prologue to the collection, for this essay not only emphasizes the fact that "man is perennially interesting to man," but it insists upon the "worth that lies in Reality" as the basis of all good biographical writing. In order to suggest various points of view from which the selections may be regarded, introductory notes are prefixed to many of them. These notes contain a synopsis of the author's life when that is necessary to understand the selection, and short passages from the essays and letters of distinguished critics. Moreover, the selections in the first and second groups in the table of contents are arranged chronologically, and at the beginning of each extract is given the date of publication or if a considerable time elapsed between writing and publication the date of writing. By this means, one may trace not only the development of biographical methods, but the progress of English narrative style.
Thanks are due to the following publishers for their permission to use extracts from their books: Messrs. Charles Scribner's Sons, Houghton Mifflin Company, Harper and Brothers, The Macmillan Company, and Smith, Elder & Company.
F. W. C. HERSEY.