TRUTH TO LIFE: The Art of Biography in the Nineteenth Century by A.O.J. Cockshut

TRUTH TO LIFE: The Art of Biography in the Nineteenth Century

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History or Literature? Classifiers have never quite decided where to locate biography. Cockshut, respected 19th century scholar, quotes Disraeli to the effect that recounting a life is history without the shackles of theory, an art form; but he then goes on to illustrate how poor practitioners of that art in the last century fell prey to theorizing anyway, roughing over the fine lines of truth: Samuel Smiles preached Self Help and wound up marching a military parade of lives in praise of individuality; Lockhart's Burns saw the poet's drinking as merely a flaw in an otherwise heroic nature; in Moore's Byron, homosexuality is not even mentioned. Cockshut explains the reticence and the ideologizing as products of the mid-Victorian ethos of decency and prudence, companions to religious belief. Yet there were great biographies. Trevelyan's Macauley, Morley's Gladstone, Froude's Carlyle -- the latter, for example, which saw not merely the characteristic poor boy role-model achieving success through industry, but the other side as well -- a man who failed in all but his literary life and suffered greatly for it. Cockshut's arguments are intelligent and readable, as well as scholarly; he has made a noteworthy contribution to the history of ideas (the book ought to be valuable even to those who have not read the works discussed) and to literary criticism as well.

Pub Date: Sept. 25th, 1974
Publisher: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich