“Read no history; nothing but biography, for that is life without theory,” said Disraeli.
The English-speaking world at least has taken this advice to heart. It is awash with many great writers and avid readers of fine biographies. Since the Second World War, there has been a remarkable effusion of excellent, thoroughly researched, and well-written portraits of numerous inspiring and repellant personalities that embody the crooked timber of our shared humanity.
This realization struck me as I wandered through the local book emporium, calculating the significant sum I was contemplating spending on just two recent, promising biographies now on the shelves. Caesar: Life of a Colossus by Adrian Goldsworthy and William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism by Robert D. Richardson had my name all over them. But the bill, even with the ten percent discount, was a bit pricey; and the Lenten season was upon us. I hadn’t given up book buying this year, but the penitential spirit weighed into the decision nonetheless.
My wife was waiting for me in the car, and I feared I could not justify this expenditure given the stacks of books, still unread, accumulating back at the house. She might raise the most dreaded question that can ever be asked of an unregenerate bibliophile, the question to which there is simply no good answer: Can’t you get that book at the local library?
Book buying is an addiction, either positive or negative, depending on your perspective. Remember when the paperback version of the 9/11 Commission report hit the bookstands before the hard copy? It was a real dilemma. Do you buy the hard copy even though the soft copy came out first? There could be a real question as to the authentic first edition. After conferring with a friend, similarly afflicted, we agreed that the only solution was to buy both!
So many books. So little time — and money. But the subject is biography, and I digress.
AS DISRAELI CORRECTLY NOTED, studying an individual life in detail requires an appreciation of the concrete realities of human existence, lived in a given time and place, with unique circumstances never to be duplicated (pace Nietzsche’s “eternal return”). While rarely directly transferable to the current scene, there are lessons to be learned from the lives of our predecessors, often surprising, cautionary, or suggestive.
Robert K. Massie’s magisterial Peter the Great (1980) epitomizes the rich learning and understanding that can be derived from a first-class biography that is illuminating, but not dispositive, of the issues of the day. Given our current relations with Russia, its popular (for the Russians anyway) authoritarian leader, and its strategic location vis-a-vis the Muslim world, Massie’s book is a masterful portrait of an autocrat trying to modernize, through brute force and force of will, a society uncongenial to Western mores. It also provides the long view of Russia’s conflicts with the depredations of the Ottoman Empire.
As a bonus Peter the Great also contains a biography within a biography in the life of Peter’s mortal enemy, the remarkable Charles XII of Sweden, who spent almost his entire young life at war, ultimately destroying his army and his empire in the process.
Massie’s excellent biography might seem an entirely arbitrary choice, but that illustrates my point. Any dedicated reader can select from a seemingly endless selection of outstanding biographies available in English: Foster on Yeats, Gilbert and Manchester on Churchill, Morris on Theodore Roosevelt, M. Jackson Bate on Samuel Johnson, Stannard on Waugh, Weigel on John Paul II. You can also match up biographies of past adversaries such as Robert Blake on Disraeli and Roy Jenkins on Gladstone, two excellent works published twenty-eight years apart. You can do the same with Luther and Ignatius of Loyola both of whom have numerous admiring or disparaging biographies reflecting the perspectives of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation.
You can read biographies of landscape architects, artists, composers (Edmund Morris’s recent short volume on Beethoven is delightful), the first Jesuit into China, and any number of knaves, adventurers, con artists, and criminals including scores of studies on Hitler, Stalin, and Mao.
To celebrate the greatest of feast days, you can even learn the story of the authentic St. Patrick, the Romanized Briton, who after being kidnapped and enslaved, experienced a spiritual awakening, escaped his captors, walked across Ireland, sailed back home, and then returned to Christianize the Irish, God save us, without the benefit of snakes, shamrocks, and green beer.
You can also absorb the works of wonderful serial biographers such as Antonia Fraser who has published biographies of Mary Queen of Scots, Cromwell, and Marie Antoinette, or Claire Tomalin who has written on Hardy, Pepys, Austen, Mansfield, Shelly, and Wollstonecraft. The list goes on and on as shall I.
CONSIDER THE CURRENT RUN of excellent works on the Founding Fathers. Franklin, Jefferson, Hamilton, Adams, and, of course, Washington have merited the attention of multiple biographers for decades. There is no let up on the fine biographies issuing forth on these worthy subjects. And Abraham Lincoln has generated his own legion of chroniclers as has Robert E. Lee and even the tormented Jefferson Davis.
Again, while the reader might disagree with a given biographer’s interpretation of his subject’s life, the research and writing is usually first-rate. And you can always try another until you find one that suits your fancy.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?