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Literary Anecdotes
by [?]

A writer of penetration sees connexions in literary anecdotes which are not immediately perceived by others: in his hands anecdotes, even should they be familiar to us, are susceptible of deductions and inferences, which become novel and important truths. Facts of themselves are barren; it is when these facts pass through reflections, and become interwoven with our feelings, or our reasonings, that they are the finest illustrations; that they assume the dignity of “philosophy teaching by example;” that, in the moral world, they are what the wise system of Bacon inculcated in the natural knowledge deduced from experiments; the study of nature in her operations. “When examples are pointed out to us,” says Lord Bolingbroke, “there is a kind of appeal, with which, we are flattered, made to our senses, as well as to our understandings. The instruction comes then from our authority; we yield to fact, when we resist speculation.”

For this reason, writers and artists should, among their recreations, be forming a constant acquaintance with the history of their departed kindred. In literary biography a man of genius always finds something which relates to himself. The studies of artists have a great uniformity, and their habits of life are monotonous. They have all the same difficulties to encounter, although they do not all meet with the same glory. How many secrets may the man of genius learn from literary anecdotes! important secrets, which his friends will not convey to him. He traces the effects of similar studies; warned sometimes by failures, and often animated by watching the incipient and shadowy attempts which closed in a great work. From one he learns in what manner he planned and corrected; from another he may overcome those obstacles which, perhaps, at that very moment make him rise in despair from his own unfinished labour. What perhaps he had in vain desired to know for half his life is revealed to him by a literary anecdote; and thus the amusements of indolent hours may impart the vigour of study; as we find sometimes in the fruit we have taken for pleasure the medicine which restores our health. How superficial is that cry of some impertinent pretended geniuses of these times who affect to exclaim, “Give me no anecdotes of an author, but give me his works!” I have often found the anecdotes more interesting than the works.

Dr. Johnson devoted one of his periodical papers to a defence of anecdotes, and expresses himself thus on certain collectors of anecdotes: “They are not always so happy as to select the most important. I know not well what advantage posterity can receive from the only circumstance by which Tickell has distinguished Addison from the rest of mankind,–the irregularity of his pulse; nor can I think myself overpaid for the time spent in reading the life of Malherbe, by being enabled to relate, after the learned biographer, that Malherbe had two predominant opinions; one, that the looseness of a single woman might destroy all her boast of ancient descent; the other, that French beggars made use, very improperly and barbarously, of the phrase noble gentlemen, because either word included the sense of both.”

These just observations may, perhaps, be further illustrated by the following notices. Dr. J. Warton has informed the world that many of our poets have been handsome. This, certainly, neither concerns the world, nor the class of poets. It is trifling to tell us that Dr. Johnson was accustomed “to cut his nails to the quick.” I am not much gratified by being informed, that Menage wore a greater number of stockings than any other person, excepting one, whose name I have really forgotten. The biographer of Cujas, a celebrated lawyer, says that two things were remarkable of this scholar. The first, that he studied on the floor, lying prostrate on a carpet, with his books about him; and, secondly, that his perspiration exhaled an agreeable smell, which he used to inform his friends he had in common with Alexander the Great! This admirable biographer should have told us whether he frequently turned from his very uneasy attitude. Somebody informs us, that Guy Patin resembled Cicero, whose statue is preserved at Rome; on which he enters into a comparison of Patin with Cicero; but a man may resemble a statue of Cicero, and yet not be Cicero. Baillet loads his life of Descartes with a thousand minutiae, which less disgrace the philosopher than the biographer. Was it worth informing the public, that Descartes was very particular about his wigs; that he had them manufactured at Paris; and that he always kept four? That he wore green taffety in France: but that in Holland he quitted taffety for cloth; and that he was fond of omelets of eggs?