Biographical Mania: The Transformation of Biographical Theory in Nineteenth-Century America

Article excerpt

In our own clay, when there are more "Lives" written in proportion to the bulk of literature chart ever before, there is less deference to rule, and apparently less sense of responsibility, in their preparation than ever before.

--North American Review, April 1857

In 1830, the New-York Mirror celebrated Americans' "Biographical Mania." "'The march of intellect,' so called, has rendered nearly every man of only limited acquirements a thinker and an observer." As a result, "public characters are scanned with a minuteness and a scrutiny unknown to our progenitors." The desire for "denuding public men of all the pomp and mystery of office and situation" and requiring them to appear in their "private character, to stand the scrutiny of their fellow men" was, to the Mirror, especially justifiable "in a republican government, where the ruling men of the times should be known as they really are." Twenty-seven years later, the Boston Evening Gazette--in an article under the same tide--similarly observed the increasing "partiality on the part of the reading community for biographies" and the rising "desire to learn more and more of the private lives of those whose writings have commanded our attention, whose eloquence has excited our wonder, or whose public acts have won our praise." (1) But in the Gazette's opinion, "The Biographical Mania" of 1857 was a literary disorder, not a welcome symptom of democracy. Biographers were now "a species of harpies," who either worshipped their subjects or dredged up scandals and private immoralities that tarnished the reputations of the great. Biography was, it seemed, being written in the worst ways imaginable.

The Evening Gazette was not alone in finding contemporary biography deficient. As the number of American biographies multiplied after 1830, so did the voices raised against them. (2) The New York Review complained in 1842 that most biographies were "little more than dull exaggerations--fact inflated into falsehood--admiration magnified by stupidity--a tissue of conjectures--misstatements and misapprehensions, bound together in a confused mass by the narrow withe of ignorance and incapacity." (3) The North American Review wrote fifteen years later of "biographical assassins swarming in all directions." (4) And the Atlantic Monthly lamented in 1864 that the dangers of biography would discourage men from seeking distinction, for "The moment an audacious head is lifted one inch above the general level, pop! goes the unerring rifle of some biographical sharp-shooter." Biographers were compared to vultures and worms awaiting corpses, and to "some cannibal entomologist" waiting to "transfix" his specimens. (5)

As these responses to America's ever-increasing "biographical mania" suggest, critics of biography leveled a two-pronged attack from the 1830s on. On the one hand, biographers too often eulogized their subjects, glossing over faults and obscuring the "real nature of the individual." On the other, biographers increasingly delved too deeply into their subjects' private lives, exposing to public view what ought to remain private. Perhaps paradoxically, both complaints about biography, that it told too little and that it told too much, agreed that biography as it was usually written failed to give its reader the "inner man," the subject as he "truly" was. The presentation or revelation of this "inner man" was at the heart of the "rules" for biography that critics expounded beginning in the 1840s. Influenced by the Romantic concept of the "great man," critics recast both the purpose and the method of biography. Biography as text, considered in the early republic an agent of moral instruction above all, began to be discussed as a literary product that revealed and portrayed a unique individual. Biography as writing process assumed a new importance in critics' eyes: the biographer could no longer simply present implausible anecdotes and glorious public deeds in order to inspire emulation; he needed the scientist's skills of research and verification and the artist's talents of organization and narration. …