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Dr. Johnson, it is said, when he first heard of Boswell's intention to write a life of him, announced, with decision enough, that, if he thought Boswell really meant to write his life, he would prevent it by taking Boswell's! That great authors should actually employ this preventive against bad biographers is a thing we would by no means recommend; but the truth is, that, rich as we are in biography, a wellwritten life is almost as rare as a well-spent one ; and there are certainly many more men whose history deserves to be . recorded, than persons willing and able to furnish the record. But great men, like the old Egyptian kings, must all be tried after death, before they can be embalmed: and what, in truth, are these 'Sketches,' 'Anas,' Conversations,
Voices,' and the like, but the votes and pleadings of the ill-informed advocates, and jurors, and judges, from whose conflict, however, we shall in the end have a true verdict ?
* Jean Paul Friedrich Richter's Leben, nebst Characteristik seiner
The worst of it is at the first; for weak eyes are precisely the fondest of glittering objects. And, accordingly, no sooner does a great man depart, and leave his character as public property, than a crowd of little men rushes towards it. There they are gathered together, blinking up to it with such vision as they have, scanning it from afar, hovering round it this way and that, each cunningly endeavoring, by all arts, to catch some reflex of it in the little mirror of himself; though, many times, this mirror is so twisted with convexities and concavities, and, indeed, so extremely small in size, that to expect any true image, or any image whatever from it, is out of the question.
Richter was much better-natured than Johnson ; and took many provoking things with the spirit of a humorist and philosopher; nor can we think that so good a man, even had he foreseen this work of Döring's, would have gone the length of assassinating him for it. Döring is a person we have known for several years, as a compiler, and translator, and ballad-monger, whose grand enterprise, however, is his Gallery of Weimar Authors; a series of strange little biographies, beginning with Schiller, and already extending over Wieland and Herder, - now comprehending, probably by conquest, Klopstock also, and lastly, by a sort of droit d'aubaine, Jean Paul Friedrich Richter, neither of whom belonged to Weimar. Authors, it must be admitted, are happier than the old painter with his cocks : for they write, naturally and without fear of ridicule or offence, the name and description of their work on the title-page; and thenceforth the purport and tendency of each volume remains indisputable. Döring is sometimes lucky in this privilege ; for his manner of composition, being so peculiar, might now and then occasion difficulty, but for this precaution. His biographies he works up simply enough. He first ascer. tains, from the Leipsic Conversationslexicon, or Jörden's
Poetical Lexicon, or Flögel, or Koch, or other such Compendium or Handbook, the date and place of the proposed individual's birth, his parentage, trade, appointments, and the titles of his works; (the date of his death you already know from the newspapers ;) this serves as
foundation for the edifice. He then goes through his writings, and all other writings where he or his pursuits are treated of, and, whenever he finds a passage with his name in it, he cuts it out, and carries it away. In this manner a mass of materials is collected, and the building now proceeds apace. Stone is laid on the top of stone, just as it comes to hand; a trowel or two of biographic mortar, if perfectly convenient, being perhaps spread in here and there, by way of cement; and so the strangest pile suddenly arises ; amorphous, pointing every way but to the zenith, — here a block of granite, there a mass of pipe-clay ; till the whole finishes, when the materials are finished, - and you leave it standing to posterity, like some miniature Stonehenge, a perfect architectural enigma.
To speak without figure, this mode of life-writing has its disadvantages. For one thing, the composition cannot well be what the critics call harmonious; and, indeed, Herr Döring's transitions are often abrupt enough. His hero changes his object and occupation from page to page, often from sentence to sentence, in the most unaccountable way; a pleasure journey, and a sickness of fifteen years, are despatched with equal brevity ; in a moment you find him married, and the father of three fine children. He dies no less suddenly ;- he is studying as usual, writing poetry, receiving visits, full of life and business, when instantly some paragraph opens under him, like one of the trapdoors in the Vision of Mirza, and he drops, without note of preparation, into the shades below. Perhaps, indeed, not for ever: we have instances of his rising after the funeral,