Literary Anecdotes by Isaac Disraeli

Story type: Essay

A writer of penetration sees connexions in literary anecdotes which are not immediately perceived by others: in his hands anecdotes, even should they be familiar to us, are susceptible of deductions and inferences, which become novel and important truths. Facts of themselves are barren; it is when these facts pass through reflections, and become interwoven with our feelings, or our reasonings, that they are the finest illustrations; that they assume the dignity of “philosophy teaching by example;” that, in the moral world, they are what the wise system of Bacon inculcated in the natural knowledge deduced from experiments; the study of nature in her operations. “When examples are pointed out to us,” says Lord Bolingbroke, “there is a kind of appeal, with which, we are flattered, made to our senses, as well as to our understandings. The instruction comes then from our authority; we yield to fact, when we resist speculation.”

For this reason, writers and artists should, among their recreations, be forming a constant acquaintance with the history of their departed kindred. In literary biography a man of genius always finds something which relates to himself. The studies of artists have a great uniformity, and their habits of life are monotonous. They have all the same difficulties to encounter, although they do not all meet with the same glory. How many secrets may the man of genius learn from literary anecdotes! important secrets, which his friends will not convey to him. He traces the effects of similar studies; warned sometimes by failures, and often animated by watching the incipient and shadowy attempts which closed in a great work. From one he learns in what manner he planned and corrected; from another he may overcome those obstacles which, perhaps, at that very moment make him rise in despair from his own unfinished labour. What perhaps he had in vain desired to know for half his life is revealed to him by a literary anecdote; and thus the amusements of indolent hours may impart the vigour of study; as we find sometimes in the fruit we have taken for pleasure the medicine which restores our health. How superficial is that cry of some impertinent pretended geniuses of these times who affect to exclaim, “Give me no anecdotes of an author, but give me his works!” I have often found the anecdotes more interesting than the works.

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Dr. Johnson devoted one of his periodical papers to a defence of anecdotes, and expresses himself thus on certain collectors of anecdotes: “They are not always so happy as to select the most important. I know not well what advantage posterity can receive from the only circumstance by which Tickell has distinguished Addison from the rest of mankind,–the irregularity of his pulse; nor can I think myself overpaid for the time spent in reading the life of Malherbe, by being enabled to relate, after the learned biographer, that Malherbe had two predominant opinions; one, that the looseness of a single woman might destroy all her boast of ancient descent; the other, that French beggars made use, very improperly and barbarously, of the phrase noble gentlemen, because either word included the sense of both.”

These just observations may, perhaps, be further illustrated by the following notices. Dr. J. Warton has informed the world that many of our poets have been handsome. This, certainly, neither concerns the world, nor the class of poets. It is trifling to tell us that Dr. Johnson was accustomed “to cut his nails to the quick.” I am not much gratified by being informed, that Menage wore a greater number of stockings than any other person, excepting one, whose name I have really forgotten. The biographer of Cujas, a celebrated lawyer, says that two things were remarkable of this scholar. The first, that he studied on the floor, lying prostrate on a carpet, with his books about him; and, secondly, that his perspiration exhaled an agreeable smell, which he used to inform his friends he had in common with Alexander the Great! This admirable biographer should have told us whether he frequently turned from his very uneasy attitude. Somebody informs us, that Guy Patin resembled Cicero, whose statue is preserved at Rome; on which he enters into a comparison of Patin with Cicero; but a man may resemble a statue of Cicero, and yet not be Cicero. Baillet loads his life of Descartes with a thousand minutiae, which less disgrace the philosopher than the biographer. Was it worth informing the public, that Descartes was very particular about his wigs; that he had them manufactured at Paris; and that he always kept four? That he wore green taffety in France: but that in Holland he quitted taffety for cloth; and that he was fond of omelets of eggs?

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It is an odd observation of Clarendon in his own life, that “Mr. Chillingworth was of a stature little superior to Mr. Hales; and it was an age in which there were many great and wonderful men of THAT SIZE.” Lord Falkland, formerly Sir Lucius Carey, was of a low stature, and smaller than most men; and of Sidney Godolphin, “There was never so great a mind and spirit contained in so little room; so that Lord Falkland used to say merrily, that he thought it was a great ingredient in his friendship for Mr. Godolphin, that he was pleased to be found in his company where he was the properer man.” This irrelevant observation of Lord Clarendon is an instance where a great mind will sometimes draw inferences from accidental coincidences, and establish them into a general principle; as if the small size of the men had even the remotest connexion with their genius and their virtues. Perhaps, too, there was in this a tincture of the superstitions of the times: whatever it was, the fact ought not to have degraded the truth and dignity of historical narrative. We have writers who cannot discover the particulars which characterise THE MAN–their souls, like damp gunpowder, cannot ignite with the spark when it falls on them.

Yet of anecdotes which appear trifling, something may be alleged in their defence. It is certainly safer for some writers to give us all they know, than to try their discernment for rejection. Let us sometimes recollect, that the page over which we toil will probably furnish materials for authors of happier talents. I would rather have a Birch, or a Hawkins, appear heavy, cold, and prolix, than that anything material which concerns a Tillotson, or a Johnson, should be lost. It must also be confessed, that an anecdote, or a circumstance, which may appear inconsequential to a reader, may bear some remote or latent connexion: a biographer who has long contemplated the character he records, sees many connexions which escape an ordinary reader. Kippis, in closing the life of the diligent Dr. Birch, has, from his own experience, no doubt, formed an apology for that minute research, which some have thought this writer carried to excess. “It may be alleged in our author’s favour, that a man who has a deep and extensive acquaintance with a subject, often sees a connexion and importance in some smaller circumstances, which may not immediately be discerned by others; and, on that account, may have reasons for inserting them, that will escape the notice of superficial minds.”

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