Biography as an Agent of Humanism
Frank E. Vandiver
How could biography be anything but an agent of humanism? The title of this essay seems to be sufficient for the message. Yet there are too many meanings of both biography and humanism to justify an urge to avoid talking for a decent moment on a subject of tantalizing dimensions.
Biography as a literary genre has undergone a sea change in this century. From the ancients' moral lesson to Victorian elegiac to Freudian revelation to modern life re-creation -- so runs the history of biography. But the roads to the present in life-writing are various, and the varieties confusing indeed.
Humanism, too, boasts a checkered history. By definition, humanism is a complex variable. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, humanism embraces "belief in the mere humanity of Christ," "any system of thought or action which is concerned with merely human interests (as distinguished from divine)," and also "devotion to those studies which promote human culture." By usage, "humanism" was the label given to the new study of Greek and Roman antiquities that sparked the Renaissance. Recently humanism has come to serve an especially malign purpose -- as whipping boy for the New Right. Seizing on that part of the definition which speaks of "belief in the mere humanity of Christ," New Right demagogues seek to smear one of the finest scholarly traditions with their own conception of a horrid agnosticism. So humanism is certainly a useful term.
What, from all these possibilities, am I going to talk about? I propose to speak of art and empathy; I want to look at biography as an art form and at humanism as the "character of being human" -- really as a special quality that quickens human clay.
One simile above all others recurs in writing about biography -the comparison of biographers with portraitists. From Plutarch to André Maurois to Barbra W. Tuchman biographers have remarked