Tag Archives: Samuel Johnson The Lives of the Poets

“the business of the biographer”

 

His domestick habits, so far as they are known, were those of a severe student. He drank little strong drink of any kind, and fed without excess in quantity, and in his earlier years without delicacy of choice. In his youth he studied late at night; but afterwards changed his hours, and rested in bed from nine to four in the summer, and five in winter. The course of his day was best known after he was blind. When he first rose he heard a chapter in the Hebrew Bible, and then studied till twelve; then took some exercise for an hour; then dined; then plaid on the organ, and sung, or heard another sing; then studied to six; then entertained his visiters, till eight; then supped, and, after a pipe of tobacco and a glass of water, went to bed.

 

— Samuel Johnson, “Milton,” The Lives of the Poets

 

 

*****************************************************

 

Samuel Johnson, in a famous essay on biography, shows the importance of minute particulars: how they bring a person to life and create reader interest:

It is frequently objected to relations of particular lives, that they are not distinguished by any striking or wonderful vicissitudes. The scholar who passed his life among his books, the merchant who conducted only his own affairs, the priest whose sphere of action was not extended beyond that of his duty, are considered as no proper objects of public regard, however they might have excelled in their several stations, whatever might have been their learning, integrity, and piety. But this notion arises from false measures of excellence and dignity, and must be eradicated by considering that, in the esteem of uncorrupted reason, what is of most use is of most value.

It is, indeed, not improper to take honest advantages of prejudice, and to gain attention by a celebrated name; but the business of the biographer is often to pass slightly over those performances and incidents which produce vulgar greatness, to lead the thoughts into domestic privacies, and display the minute details of daily life, where exterior appendages are cast aside, and men excel each other only by prudence and by virtue. The account of Thuanus is, with great propriety, said by its author to have been written that it might lay open to posterity the private and familiar character of that man, cujus ingenium et candorem ex ipsius scriptis sunt olim semper miraturi, whose candour and genius will to the end of time be by his writings preserved in admiration.

There are many invisible circumstances which, whether we read as inquirers after natural or moral knowledge, whether we intend to enlarge our science or increase our virtue, are more important than public occurrences. Thus Salust, the great master of nature, has not forgot, in his account of Catiline, to remark that his walk has now gone quick, and again slow, as an indication of a mind revolving something with violent commotion. Thus the story of Melancthon affords a striking lecture on the value of time, by informing us that, when he made an appointment, he expected not only the hour but the minute to be fixed, that the day might not run out in the idleness of suspense; and all the plans and enterprises of De Wit are now of less importance to the world than that part of his personal character which represents him as careful of his health, and negligent of his life.

But biography has often been allotted to writers who seem very little acquainted with the nature of their task, or very negligent about the performance. They rarely afford any other account than might be collected from public papers, but imagine themselves writing a life when they exhibit a chronological series of actions or preferments; and so little regard the manners or behaviour of their heroes that more knowledge may be gained of a man’s real character, by a short conversation with one of his servants, than from a formal and studied narrative, begun with his pedigree and ended with his funeral.

— Samuel Johnson, Rambler #60, October 13, 1750

 

 

*****************************************************

 

In his preface to Letters of Theodore Dreiser (1959), edited by Dressier scholar Robert H. Elias, Elias, who knew Dreiser personally, noted that letters “that simply record data, biographical or bibliographical, or that are primarily love letters” had been excluded. My former therapist, Ralph Colp, Jr., said up front, without hesitation, that this was a mistake, a serious omission. I agreed.

I happened once to mention to Dr. Colp the Penguin series of biographies: Brief Lives. I had purchased one of them. Dr. Colp said that a brief life leaving out most or many important details amounted to an insufficient biography. I realized that he was right.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   December 2018

Roger W. Smith, review of “A Family of His Own: A Life of Edwin O’Connor”

 

 

A Family of His Own: A Life of Edwin O’Connor

by Charles F. Duffy

Catholic University of America Press

376 pages, $49.95

By ROGER W. SMITH

 

New York Sun

January 8, 2004

 

 

Surprisingly for a writer who occupies a well-defined niche in American literary history — his The Last Hurrah was the most widely read Irish-American novel since James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan — Edwin O’Connor has never been the subject of a full-scale biography until now. Charles Duffy, a professor of English at Providence College, has taken it upon himself to remedy this defect.

The Last Hurrah has been justly termed by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. “the best American novel about urban politics.” It made a legend of Boston politician James Michael Curley (on whom the book’s main character, Frank Skeffington, is partly based) and its title added a new phrase to the American idiom which is now a cliché of political and sports writing.

O’Connor was quoted as having once said to an acquaintance that he “would like to do for the Irish in America what Faulkner did for the South.” He did not live long enough to be able to attempt this, having published five novels of varying importance and quality (only one of which is still in print) at his death in 1968 at the age of 49.

O’Connor died suddenly of a stroke, leaving behind fragments of two novels that he had worked on alternately in the last months of his life. One, tentatively titled “The Cardinal,” was to focus on the Church in the post-Vatican II era; the other, entitled “The Boy,” appears to be autobiographical. O’Connor had also planned to write a novel about Boston’s first Irish immigrants in the mid-nineteenth century.

It was Samuel Johnson who first claimed, in a famous essay on the writing of biography, that “the minute details of daily life” are of the greatest biographical interest. It was also Johnson who, in his Lives of the Poets, provides a model for literary biography in which a conscious effort is made to shed light on areas such as each writer’s moral character, work habits, and the particular concatenation of circumstances and influences (intellectual and cultural) that resulted in an oeuvre.

In true Johnsonian spirit, Duffy has mined every conceivable scrap of information about O’Connor, bringing him as it were back to life. He has made excellent and creative use of miscellaneous source materials and personal reminiscences (O’Connor was notoriously averse to letter writing) to unearth details about O’Connor’s student days at Notre Dame, his early career as a radio announcer and writer, his Boston years and haunts, his newspaper experience (which included a stint as a television critic for the Boston Herald), the circle of literary friends he made at The Atlantic Monthly and Wellfleet on Cape Cod (where he spent his summers), and the writing process as O’Connor practiced and experienced it. He uses O’Connor’s works to illuminate the life and makes interesting speculations, based on autobiographical readings of the novels and unpublished sketches, about O’Connor’s relationship with his father, but at the same time resists the temptation to make easy generalizations in this regard.

Duffy is even-handed and perceptive in assessing O’Connor’s strengths and weaknesses. Chief among the strengths: a gift for characterization (his minor characters, such as the political hangers-on in The Last Hurrah, were said by Clifton Fadiman to be worthy of Hogarth or Daumier), his humor, and his gift for dialogue. A sampling of the critical comments (which are many) regarding O’Connor’s works: his wordiness and frequent neglect of the dictum “show, don’t tell” (resulting in a propensity for making overly explicit what is clearly implied by the narrative), a penchant for nostalgia that can at times seem cloying, and a tendency to enjoy his favorite characters so much that they never leave center stage and the reader begins to tire of them.

One thing I would have liked to learn more about are writers who influenced O’Connor. Duffy mentions the influence of Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene, but more information on O’Connor’s literary influences and reading would have been welcome. I would also take issue with an occasional glibness that creeps into Duffy’s prose, as, for example, in an aside in which he dismisses “the half-baked theories of the Doctor from Vienna, most of which are now in the dustbin”; his figure of speech for Kristallnacht, “that vandalic shattering”; and his characterization of mid-twentieth century Boston Brahmins, “Backsliding in finances, resting on imaginary laurels, and underperforming in sex, that class had had its noontime in Boston’s weak sun.”

Duffy thinks (as do other critics) that The Edge of Sadness (1961), a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a priest whose career and inner conflicts are portrayed with unsparing realism, is O’Connor’s best and most finely crafted novel. The book’s understated tone (avoiding what Duffy calls “spiritual histrionics” and a Hollywood-style treatment of the priestly vocation) and narrative style play to O’Connor’s strengths. “At his best,” Duffy observes, “[O’Connor] wrote with great ethical integrity, with an unusual warmth towards his characters, with elegant wit.” Similar qualities are evident in this biography, especially a sincere affection for its subject which it is hard for the reader not to share.

Mr. Smith is a freelance writer and editor based in Maspeth, Queens.