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Some Thoughts On Biography
by [?]

Of the four great biographical works which we have mentioned, we hold Dr. Johnson’s to be by far the best in point of composition. Even Plutarch, though pardonably overrated in consequence of the great subjects which he treats (which again are ‘great’ by benefit of distance and the vast abstracting process executed by time upon the petty and the familiar), is loose and rambling in the principles of his nexus; and there lies the great effort for a biographer, there is the strain, and that is the task–viz., to weld the disconnected facts into one substance, and by interfusing natural reflections to create for the motions of his narrative a higher impulse than one merely chronologic. In this respect, the best of Dr. Johnson’s ‘Lives’ are undoubtedly the very best which exist. They are the most highly finished amongst all masterpieces of the biographic art, and, as respects the Doctor personally, they are, beyond comparison, his best work. It is a great thing in any one art or function, even though it were not a great one, to have excelled all the literature of all languages. And if the reader fancies that there lurks anywhere a collection of lives, or even one life (though it were the ‘Agricola’ of Tacitus), which as a work of refined art and execution can be thought equal to the best of Dr. Johnson’s, we should be grateful to him if he would assign it in a letter to Mr. Blackwood:

‘And though the night be raw,
We’ll see it too, the first we ever saw.’

We say nothing of the Calmuck Tartars; they hold (see Bergmann’s ‘Streifereien’) that their ‘Dschangariade’ is the finest of all epic poems, past or coming; and, therefore, the Calmuck Lives of the Poets will naturally be inimitable. But confining our view to the unhappy literatures of Europe, ancient or modern, this is what we think of Dr. Johnson’s efforts as a biographer. Consequently, we cannot be taxed with any insensibility to his merit. And as to the critical part of his Lives, if no thoughtful reader can be expected to abide by his haughty decisions, yet, on the other hand, every man reads his opinions with pleasure, from the intellectual activity and the separate justice of the thoughts which they display. But as to his libellous propensity, that rests upon independent principles; for all his ability and all his logic could not elevate his mind above the region of gossip.

Take his ‘Life of Savage.’ This was the original nest-egg, upon which, as a basis, and perhaps as the occasional suggestion of such an enterprise, all the rest–allow us a pompous word–supervened. It was admirably written, because written con amore, and also because written con odio; and under either impulse is it possible to imagine grosser delusions? Johnson persuaded himself that Savage was a fine gentleman (a role not difficult to support in that age, when ceremony and a gorgeous costume were amongst the auxiliary distinctions of a gentleman), and also that he was a man of genius. The first claim was necessarily taken upon trust by the Doctor’s readers; the other might have been examined; but after a few painful efforts to read ‘The Wanderer’ and other insipid trifles, succeeding generations have resolved to take that upon trust also; for in very truth Savage’s writings are of that order which ‘do not let themselves be read.’ Why, then, had publishers bought them? Publishers in those days were mere tradesmen, without access to liberal society. Even Richardson, though a man of great genius, in his publisher’s character was an obsequious, nay, servile, admirer of the fine gentleman who wore a sword, embroidered clothes, and Mechlin ruffles about his wrists; above all things, he glorified and adored a Lovelace, with a fine person, who sang gaily to show his carelessness of low people, never came abroad except in a sedan-chair, and liberally distributed his curses to the right and the left in all respectable men’s shops. This temper, with her usual sagacity, Lady M. Wortley Montagu could detect in Richardson, and for this she despised him. But this it was, and some little vision of possible patronage from Lord Tyrconnel, which had obtained any prices at all for Savage from such knowing publishers as were then arising; but generally Savage had relied upon subscriptions, which were still common, and, in his case, as a man supposed unfortunate, were given purely as charity. With what astonishment does a literary foreigner of any judgment find a Savage placed amongst the classics of England! and from the scale of his life reasonably he must infer that he is ranked amongst the leaders, whilst the extent in which his works are multiplied would throw him back upon the truth–that he is utterly unknown to his countrymen. These, however, were the delusions of good nature. But what are we to think of Dr. Johnson’s abetting that monstrous libel against Lady Macclesfield? She, unhappily, as a woman banished without hope from all good society by her early misconduct as a wife (but, let it not be forgotten, a neglected wife), had nobody to speak a word on her behalf: all evil was believed of one who had violated her marriage vows. But had the affair occurred in our days, the public journals would have righted her. They would have shown the folly of believing a vain, conceited man like Savage and his nurse, with no vouchers whatever, upon a point where they had the deepest interest at stake; whilst on the opposite side, supposing their story true, spoke for them the strongest of all natural instincts–the pleading of the maternal heart, combated by no self-interest whatever. Surely if Lady Macclesfield had not been supported by indignation against an imposture, merely for her own ease and comfort, she would have pensioned Savage, or have procured him some place under Government–not difficult in those days for a person with her connections (however sunk as respected female society) to have obtained for an only son. In the sternness of her resistance to all attempts upon her purse we read her sense of the fraud. And, on the other hand, was the conduct of Savage that of a son? He had no legal claims upon her, consequently no pretence for molesting her in her dwelling-house. And would a real son–a great lubberly fellow, well able to work as a porter or a footman–however wounded at her obstinate rejection, have been likely, in pursuit of no legal rights, to have alarmed her by threatening letters and intrusions, for no purpose but one confessedly of pecuniary extortion? From the very mode of pursuing his claim it is plain that Savage felt it to be a false one. It seems, also, to be forgotten by most readers, that at this day real sons–not denied to be such–are continually banished, nay, ejected forcibly by policemen, from the paternal roof in requital of just such profligate conduct as Savage displayed; so that, grant his improbable story, still he was a disorderly reprobate, who in these days would have been consigned to the treadmill. But the whole was a hoax.