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of this wonderful talent of expressing in a few sentences, or even in a few words, all that distinguished a long and diversified life, and a sublime character. Paterculus, the last, though certainly not the least, of the great historical masters to whom we have alluded, in speaking of Mithridates, thus describes the hero and his fortunes-" him, whom we cannot pass over in silence, but of whom it is not easy to speak as we ought-indefatigable in war-terrible, as well by his policy as by his courage-always great by his genius-sometimes so by his fortune-at once a soldier and a general, he was, to the Romans, another Hannibal." On another occasion, speaking of Cato, he says:-"The image of virtue, he more nearly approached the nature of the Divinity than of man-never doing good from motives of ostentation, but always from a necessity which did not permit him to do otherwise-never believing any thing to be reasonable, that was not strictly just-wholly untainted by the vices of humanity, and always superior to fortune."
This strong and powerful sketching-so beautiful, so useful, and even so indispensable to history, does not comport with the character and purposes of biography. These, require many and minute details, and much nice and elaborate finishing, and impose the complicated duty of exhibiting the subject, at one time, in the bustle of business and contention of the passions, and again, in the stillness and seclusion of private life-where the hero is put off with the helmet and the sword-where every thing artificial in temper, in manners, in habits, and in principles, is laid aside, and where we discover only the husband, the father, the master, and the friend.
However easy this task may appear to men of genius, in speculating upon it, it will be found, on experiment, to be difficult and embarrassing. To descend with dignity; to pass from subjects, interesting and momentous, which adorn or instruct, or afflict a whole people, to those which light up the smiles, or awaken the sorrows, of a single family; to exchange the grave for the gay-or the distant for the familiar the agitations of a nation, for the playfulness of the boudoir or the gambols of the nursery, is even more difficult in literature than in life, and presupposes a versatility of talent, a grace, a judgment, and a knowledge, rarely associated in the same writer; and in the want of which is, perhaps, to be found the true solution of the problem-Why, among both
ancients and moderns, instances of successful biography are so rare?
Of the Roman writers, Cornelius Nepos, though well entitled, from the elegance and precision of his style, to the rank of a classic, has obviously forgotten, or disregarded, the special duty of the biographer; as he gives only great and leading occurrences in the lives of those, whom he has selected for commemoration: while, on the other hand, Suetonius, though speaking as freely of emperors, as they themselves lived, (as remarked by Erasmus,) though telling every thing and concealing nothing, and though apparently warped by no prejudice for, or against, any individual,—is, notwithstanding, a mere annalist; creating little, if any interest in his reader, and often disgusting him by a tedious and scrupulous attention to trifles.
Nor are the two Grecian masters without faults, or without censure. The latest of these, Diogenes Laertius, took upon himself the task of exhibiting the lives, not of the great and the powerful-not of kings and of emperors, but of the learned and the wise, the salt of the earth. Yet, under all -the stimulus of his subject, and with the richest materials before him, he has palpably failed. Plutarch, who has been called the father of biography, has more admirers, and has better deserved them. Diligent in collecting facts, and faithful in narrating them-a friend to virtue, and a respecter of religion, he is generally instructive, and often entertaining. The execution, no less than the idea, of his parallel lives, demonstrates his genius; but certainly with some abatement of moral fame, if it be true, that in the comparisons he has drawn between Cicero and Demosthenes, between Cato and Aristides, between Sylla and Lysander, and between Marcellus and Pelopidas, may be discovered a gross partiality for his own countrymen. Dacier has, besides, criticised his style; and Knox, an English parson, objects to him his superstitions ;-but perhaps the most blameable thing about him, as a writer, is his strong and ungovernable propensity to digression-which, though it always shows erudition, has often no necessary connexion with his subject.
Modern literature abounds in biographical writing; and that of France, in particular, is deluged with it, under the general and fashionable title of Memoirs. Yet of this superabundance, how small a portion is destined to survive a delivery from the press? Those of De Torcy, of Turenne,
of Sully, and of De Retz, continue to engage the attention of soldiers, of statesmen, and of scholars; and the last work, no doubt, is particularly entitled to distinction, not only from the profound knowledge of men and of business which it displays, but from the talent it evinces for strong and impressive writing.
British biography, though less in quantity than French, is yet very abundant, and, upon the whole, not better in quality than that of its more flippant neighbour. Wood's Athenæ, was the work of a university; and the Biographia Britannica, may be regarded as that of a nation; yet of the former, it is admitted, "that it has no merit as an elegant composition;" and of the latter, "that though the plan be good, it has been unequally and indifferently executed." Mallet's Life of Bacon, (written in imitation of the Life of Agricola, by Tacitus,) and Middleton's Life of Cicero; Johnson's Lives of the Poets, and the auto-biographies of Hume and Gibbon, are the British chefs d'œuvres in this species of writing. Of these, Johnson's are the best, and contain, in particular, a parallel between Dryden and Pope, not exceeded by any similar production in any language, unless, indeed, we except Justin's celebrated comparison between Philip and Alexander of Macedon; or that of Voltaire, between Peter I. of Russia, and Charles XII. of Sweden.
Even our own literature, young and immature as it is, and as it will continue to be, until writing takes its stand among our arts as a distinct profession, is not altogether destitute of valuable biographical specimens. Marshall's Life of Washington, when it shall have outlived the party spirit of the men and the times it describes, will stand high for the extent and authenticity of its materials-for the clearness and modesty of its style-for the general impartiality of its statements, and that uniform good sense, which, according to the critics, is the characteristic of Plutarch; and which consists, not merely in saying wise things, but in never saying foolish ones. The Life of Franklin, by himself, is another home-production, entitled to much commendation, and containing, perhaps, the best account we possess of a young man, struggling with adversity, and making his way from ignorance, poverty, and obscurity, to the high places, not merely of office, "which may be gained by reptiles as well as by eagles," but of the arts, of the sciences, and of litera
What young man can read the following passage, (written with the frankness of Rousseau and the simplicity of Addison,) without a determination to amend his life and his creed, if either has been bad, or even doubtful? My pa'rents,' says the writer, had given me, betimes, religious im'pressions, and I received from my infancy, a pious education in the principles of Calvinism. But scarcely was I ar'rived at fifteen years of age, when, after having doubted ' in turn of different tenets, according as I found them com'bated in the different books that I read, I began to doubt ' of revelation itself. Some volumes against deism, now fell ' into my hands; they were said to be the substance of sermons, preached at Boyle's lectures. It happened that they produced on me an effect precisely the reverse of what was 'intended by the writers; for the arguments of the deists, 'which were cited in order to be refuted, appeared to be 'much more forcible than the refutation itself. In a word, I soon became a professed deist. My arguments perverted some other young persons, particularly Collins and Ralph. 'But in the sequel, when I recollected, that they had both used me extremely ill, without the smallest remorse; when 'I considered the behaviour of Keith, another freethinker, ' and my own conduct towards Vernon and Miss Reed, which at times gave me much uneasiness, I was led to suspect, 'that this doctrine, though it might be true, was not useful. 'I began, also, to entertain a less favourable opinion of my 'London pamphlet, of which the object was to prove, from 'the attributes of God, [goodness, wisdom, and power,] that 'there could be no such thing as evil in the world; that vice ' and virtue did not in reality exist, and were nothing more 'than vain distinctions. I no longer regarded it as so 'blameless a work as I had formerly imagined; and I sus
pected, that some error must imperceptibly have glided into my argument, by which all my inferences were affected, as 'frequently happens in metaphysical reasonings. In a word,
I was at last convinced, that truth, probity, and sincerity, ' in transactions between man and man, were of the utmost importance to the happiness of life, and I resolved from that moment, (and wrote the resolution in my journal,) to 'practise them as long as I lived.'
Of another work, similar in kind, of home-production and of recent date, (and which gives title to this article,) we would fain speak, as we have already spoken of the Lives of
Washington and Franklin ; but we owe it to truth to say, that whether this be regarded as a specimen of American literature, or as a portion of American history, it is equally objectionable. Having thus frankly given our opinion, we necessarily incur the obligation of justifying it, in both its parts, and shall proceed accordingly to show a few of the defects of the work,
1st. As a literary composition; and,
2d. As a chronicle or register of public events.
No one could reasonably expect from a gentleman, who for the first time goes to a dancing school at the age of fifty, all the nice and delicate attentions to movements and attitudes, that would distinguish a Vestris or a Duport whose whole lives have been devoted to the art; and as little, perhaps, could it be expected that one, whose principal occupation it has been to decipher antiquated English and bad Latin, and who makes his first appearance as a writer, at a period of life when wise men generally throw up the trade— should pay much attention to such small things as prepositions and conjunctions, relatives and antecedents, verbs and adverbs, &c. &c. which grammarians have invented to puzzle boys of all ages. But what we have a right to expect from all men of sound mind and memory, who offer themselves as public instructors, are, (1st,) a clear and well discriminated order, or arrangement, of the several points to be treated; (2d,) an avoidance of vulgar, affected, bombastic, or hyperbolical language; (3d,) a rejection of all involved or obscure sentences; and, (4th,) a thorough acquaintance with the literal or figurative meaning of every word actually employed in the work. An observance of these rules, exclusively of others, will not make a writer either neat and graceful, or correct and powerful, but will seldom fail to render him respectable; so that though we may not be able to praise, neither shall we find it easy to censure.
On this subject, Mr. Johnson must have thought differently, (if he thought at all,) since he has not scrupled to violate all these indispensable rules, without the smallest apparent repugnancy. To his first chapter is given the laconic title of Birth, Parentage, and Early Life,' whence we had a right to expect, in succession, an account of the General's nativity-another of the family-tree, and a third, which should exhibit to us the boyhood and youth of the hero. But instead of this, in the very first page, and even in the first paragraph of this page, he is presented, at the mature age of thirty