Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

"A New Departure in Biography": Samuel Smiles' Writing

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

"A New Departure in Biography": Samuel Smiles' Writing

Article excerpt

Samuel Smiles has been credited with creating a new style of biography in Self-Help and subsequent works. Captivated by the rhythm and pulse of everyday life. Smiles focuses on the lives of people who contributed to Britain's rise as an industrial power. His stylistic innovations are linked not only to his focus on everyday workers but also on the readership he sought to cultivate. Viewing biography as an exemplary genre--one that could teach life lessons and serve as inspiration--Smiles downplays moments of crisis and qualities of genius, instead highlighting his subjects' perseverance, diligence, application, and attention; he also stresses the importance of collaboration in the advancement of useful knowledge. The examples of Smiles' new approach to biography are evident in Self-Help, notably in his repeated references to inventor James Watt. The anecdotal, fragmented, and repetitive approach Smiles employs, often cited as a weakness in his work, is actually a calculated strategy designed to appeal to modern readers who wish to capitalize on their few free moments to improve their lives and contribute to the productivity of the nation. The structure of Self-Help resembles the railroad industry, which he admired: the vast railway network finds its narrative parallel in a book of unbounded, intense, and disruptive energy.


In a typically eclectic section of Self-Help (1859) Samuel Smiles tells his reader that it took James Watt thirty years to perfect his invention of the steam engine. This observation is preceded by the example of Thomas Carlyle: upon discovering that the manuscript for the first volume of The French Revolution had been accidently used by a housemaid to light the kitchen and parlor fires, Carlyle sat down and painstakingly rewrote the volume from memory. And it is followed by the unlikely partnership of three men ("a cadet, an India-House clerk, and a lawyer's clerk") who worked together to comprehend the unknown language of the cuneiform script on the Nineveh tablets (95-97). Each of these accounts reinforces the focus on perseverance that Smiles' book seeks to drive home. But they also make their point in a style that relies on anecdote and example, and they offer stories of men--Watt, Carlyle, Rawlinson, Norris, and Austen Layard respectively--who, with the exception of Carlyle, would not have generally entered biographical records and certainly would not have done so in the same company.

In this essay I want to consider Samuel Smiles as a biographer. Almost all of Smiles' twenty books and countless articles engage with biography in one way or another. Indeed, in his preface to Smiles' Autobiography, Thomas Mackay describes Smiles as making a "new departure in biography" (viii). What captivated Smiles, according to Mackay, was the very rhythm and pulse of ordinary life. He recognized "that the everyday work of applied science had its romance. He grasped the fact that the million had become readers, and required to be amused as well as instructed" (viii). Mackay at once captures Smile' contribution to a new topic for biography (everyday work) and a new readership (the million). In this paper I will focus primarily on the first half of Mackay's observation in tandem with the stylistic innovations that followed from both his focus on everyday workers and his recognition that his readers were wide and varied. For many, Smiles' repetitive, digressive, anecdotal style has been the subject of critique. For many others, the very popularity of Smiles' self-help thesis has obscured the "new departure in biography" he was charting. I want to put these two points together to ask: how does the form of Smiles' writing--the repetition, the anecdotes, the random moments, the romance--have a bearing on his new departure in biography and his passion for the philosophy of self-help?

On Biography

The nineteenth century has often been referred to as the "Age of Biography" (Atkinson 14): the number of biographies rose exponentially through the century and was capped by the massive Dictionary of National Biography begun in 1885 and completed in 1901. …

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