You know how the heart is subject to freshets; you know how the mother, always loving her child, yet seeing in it some new wile of affection, will catch it up and cover it with kisses and break forth in a rapture of loving. Such a kind of heart-glow fell from the Savior upon that young man who said to him, “Good Master, what good thing shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” It is said, “Then Jesus, beholding him, loved him.”
—Henry Ward Beecher.
The influence of Henry Ward Beecher upon his time was marked. And now the stream of his life is lost amid the ocean of our being. As a single drop of aniline in a barrel of water will tint the whole mass, so has the entire American mind been colored through the existence of this one glowing personality. He placed a new interpretation on religion, and we are different people because he lived.
He was not constructive, not administrative–he wrote much, but as literature his work has small claim on immortality. He was an orator, and the business of the orator is to inspire other men to think and act for themselves.
Orators live but in memory. Their destiny is to be the sweet, elusive fragrance of oblivion–the thyme and mignonette of things that were.
The limitations in the all-around man are by-products which are used by destiny in the making of orators. The welling emotions, the vivid imagination, the forgetfulness of self, the abandon to feeling–all these things in Wall Street are spurious coin. No prudent man was ever an orator–no cautious man ever made a multitude change its mind, when it had vowed it would not.
Oratory is indiscretion set to music.
The great orator is great on account of his weaknesses as well as on account of his strength. So why should we expect the orator to be the impeccable man of perfect parts?
These essays attempt to give the man–they are neither a vindication nor an apology.
Edmund Gosse has recently said something so wise and to the point on the subject of biography that I can not resist the temptation to quote him:
If the reader will but bear with me so far as to endure the thesis that the first theoretical object of the biographer should be indiscretion, not discretion, I will concede almost everything practical to delicacy. But this must be granted to me: that the aim of all portraiture ought to be the emphasizing of what makes the man different from, not like, other men. The widow almost always desires that her deceased hero should be represented as exactly like all other respectable men, only a little grander, a little more glorified. She hates, as only a bad biographer can hate, the telling of the truth with respect to those faults and foibles which made the light and shade of his character. This, it appears, was the primitive view of biography. The mass of medieval memorials was of the “expanded-tract” order: it was mainly composed of lives of the saints, tractates in which the possible and the impossible were mingled in inextricable disorder, but where every word was intended directly for edification. Here the biographer was a moralist whose hold upon exact truth of statement was very loose indeed, but who was determined that every word he wrote should strengthen his readers in the faith. Nor is this generation of biographers dead today. Half the lives of the great and good men, which are published in England and America, are expanded tracts. Let the biographer be tactful, but do not let him be cowardly; let him cultivate delicacy, but avoid its ridiculous parody, prudery.
And I also quote this from James Anthony Froude:
The usual custom in biography is to begin with the brightest side and to leave the faults to be discovered afterwards. It is dishonest and it does not answer. Of all literary sins, Carlyle himself detested most a false biography. Faults frankly acknowledged are frankly forgiven. Faults concealed work always like poison. Burns’ offenses were made no secret of. They are now forgotten, and Burns stands without a shadow on him, the idol of his countrymen.