A Biography on Reading Biographies

After reading too many books on bad presidents, obscure Civil War generals and forgotten governors of Florida, a reader floats off to read the lives of poets.

One of the most memorable passages I have ever chanced to come across comes from the pen of Charles Darwin and concerns poetry. Yes, that Charles Darwin. In his autobiography, Darwin confessed that he could no longer take pleasure in reading poetry. This pained Darwin. Looking over the reading he had done in his earlier years, Darwin admitted:

I took much delight in Wordsworth's and Coleridge's poetry; and can boast that I read the 'Excursion' twice through. Formerly Milton's 'Paradise Lost' had been my chief favourite, and in my excursions during the voyage of the "Beagle", when I could take only a single volume, I always chose Milton

Looking beyond the obvious irony of Darwin carrying the works of a poet who wished to expand on the biblical creation story in his pocket, my musing on Darwin's changing reading patterns is my roundabout way of introducing my own confession. I grew up relishing biographies of political and military leaders. My senior thesis as an undergrad was cookie-cutter political biographical sketch as I sketched out John C. Calhoun's tenure as Secretary of War. Great presidents, poor Civil War generals, it didn't matter. I would cheerfully plow through the multivolume works of Dumas Malone and Douglas Southall Freeman. I would ponder over such important matters as the composition of Franklin Pierce's Cabinet and Banastre Tarleton's tenure as a cavalry commander in Portugal in the 1790's. No detail proved too insignificant for my memory and my mind would store tons of useless stories on politicians and generals. While defenders of the genre would argue that we read biographies to improve our character or find inspiration, I honestly can say knowing that Chester A. Arthur owned over eighty pairs of trousers or that Gen. George B. McClellan of the North and Gen. A.P. Hill of the South loved the same woman has not helped me that much over the years.

These days I can not stomach reading about the lives of politicians and warriors. Now part of this may be that I have burned myself out on the subject having spent the last two decades reading magisterial tomes on the likes of Rutherford B. Hayes and Horatio Gates. But part of it may be that as I have gotten older, I have lived in the world, followed human events and decided that we have too many politicians and warriors as is. As I am not seeking to be cured of my addiction of reading biographies, I have stopped trying to spot eagles and hawks and instead hunt down the nightingales and larks. Or, to continue to beat the avian analogy into the ground, I can quote T. S. Eliot's lines from "Burnt Norton":

Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind/Can not bear very much reality.

So instead of reading about the use or, more likely, the misuse of political and military power, I now immerse myself in biographies of writers. I am fascinated with the creative process and how a writer's life shapes his books and poems. I'm even tackling biographies of biographers-at least Richard Holmes' charming informal accounts of chasing down his subjects and his essays on the patron saint of all biographers and those of us who read biographies, James Boswell. You can learn more about being alive and what means to be human in knowing how Coleridge's childhood, education, love life, travels, friendships, reading and addictions shaped his creative vision than you would by fully understanding the vice-presidency of Garret Hobart.

Before leading his army to the Plains of Abraham and winning the decisive battle of the French and Indian War, General James Wolfe recited Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard." While the line "the paths of glory lead but to the grave" would prove prophetic in Wolfe's case, the general told his men that he would have rather written that poem than take Quebec.

I think I am starting to understand what General Wolfe meant.

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