In his essay No. 60 in The Rambler, what did Samuel Johnson believe made a good biography. What must the biographer be sure to do? Based on Rambler No. 60

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A good biography, says Johnson, must be relatable.

Johnson contrasts biography to history, and says biography is an inherently more relatable genre. History concerns itself with military campaigns, "the consultations of senates," and the downfall of kingdoms and empires, grand and often abstract events which seem to have little in common with the lives of everyday people.

The life of any individual, however, has much in common with the life of the rest of humankind. Johnson writes:

We are all prompted by the same motives, all deceived by the same fallacies, all animated by hope, obstructed by danger, entangled by desire, and seduced by pleasure.

Therefore, biography is a genre we can both delight in and learn from.

Johnson dismisses the idea that the lives of ordinary people are not fit subjects for biography. In fact, they can be the best subjects, because "what is of most use is of most value." We can learn more from others like ourselves than from exalted heroes. The best biographies, he writes, include the seemingly minor details from which we either create vivid mental pictures or morally benefit:

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.

Johnson argues that the best biographies are written as soon as possible after a person has died, so that details and memories are still fresh and honest. As time passes, the urge to create fictions and hide flaws becomes more likely, especially as the details that made an individual distinct are forgotten. We learn best from real accounts of what people's lives were like, not accounts that make the person seem better than he was. Truth in biography is all important:

If the biographer writes from personal knowledge, and makes haste to gratify the public curiosity, there is danger lest his interest, his fear, his gratitude, or his tenderness overpower his fidelity, and tempt him to conceal, if not to invent. There are many who think it an act of piety to hide the faults or failings of their friends, even when they can no longer suffer by their detection; we therefore see whole ranks of characters adorned with uniform panegyric, and not to be known from one another but by extrinsic and casual circumstances. "Let me remember," says Hale, "when I find myself inclined to pity a criminal, that there is likewise a pity due to the country." If we owe regard to the memory of the dead, there is yet more respect to be paid to knowledge, to virtue, and to truth.

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Johnson's essay on biography in Rambler 60 comprises essentially a how-to on writing biography, which Johnson believed was one of the highest forms of literature:

and therefore no species of writing seems more worthy of cultivation than biography, since none can be more delightful or more useful, none can more certainly enchain the heart by irresistible interest, or more widely diffuse instruction to every diversity of condition.

In other words, a well-written biography could be not only entertaining but also a learning experience.  The belief that literature should instruct is a constant theme in Johnson's own writings--in Rasselas and Lives of the Poets, for example--and he believed that a good biographer had the ability to describe, through the example of the subject's life, either good or bad behavior.

Johnson argues in the essay that good biography should not restrict itself to people who play a large role in historical life.  Rather, Johnson makes the case for writing about the lives of men who have no public role in the belief that

We are all prompted by the same motives, all deceived by the same fallacies, all animated by hope, obstructed by danger, entangled by desire, and seduced by pleasure.

Because all men--great or not--are subject to universal feelings, emotions, and dangers, a biography of any man can provide useful object lessons on how, and how not, to behave.

In paragraph 7, Johnson pursues this argument further by noting that

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 domestick 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 behavior and incidents that make men "great" are not, according to Johnson, necessarily appropriate subjects of biography.  Instead, Johnson argues that the biographer should focus on the "minute details" of a man's life when the biographer can discern how a man behaves when his defenses are down and his public persona is not operating.

Johnson argues that the biographer must avoid the publick picture of a man--that image gained by what the public knows of a person--and, instead, talk to a man's servant:

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.

This instruction results from a deeply-felt belief, based on Johnson's own experience with the rich and powerful,  that a man's the true nature is displayed by how he functions in his private life and, more important, how he treats people--servants, for example--who are at the lower levels of the chain of being.

Ultimately, Johnson argues that good biography is not just a reflection of "regard to the memory of the dead" but to "knowledge, to virtue, and to truth."

 

 

 

 

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