04 October 2013

Biography and Criticism: George Bancroft Meets C.S. Lewis

In his novel "Angle of Repose" (previously noted here and here), novelist and historian Wallace Stegner has his narrator (who is also an historian) remark to the effect that yet another historian, George Bancroft, had commented that biographers should "present a subject in his terms and judge him in yours." Despite diligent efforts I still don't know if George Bancroft said any such thing but in a 1987 article in The Bloomsbury Review biographer Robert Richardson also claims he did.

But pedantic cite checking need not detain us, particularly in a blog post. Whether George Bancroft or Wallace Stegner was the first to say it, it's true. Deconstruction characterizes those who judge a person from the past solely in terms of the present; hagiography when the present casts but a faint shadow on an idealized past. Richardson put it well when he concluded that "presenting the life of  a person from that person's perspective is an exercise in empathy, while the biographer's personal presence and voice, embodying his own best judgment, keeps the story from naively accepting the subject's assessment of everyone and everything."

Nonetheless, I believe there's more to say. To be honest to the past as well as the present requires that we in that present not assume there is nothing to learn from the past. If, as Chesterton remarked, tradition is the democracy of the dead, we should be as open to the judgments of the past--reconstituted as best it can be--as the past invariably is to us.

Indeed, that's what I take to be the burden of C.S. Lewis in "An Experiment in Criticism." As Lewis remarks, “The first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out.)” We must, in other words, allow a book--biography or novel--some, penultimate to be sure, authority over us. Such a surrender entails some risk but to do otherwise means we are reading without an intention of reflecting. Chronological snobbery as Lewis put it elsewhere.

Thus, I would insert a third element to the putative Bancroft quote: present a subject in his own terms, let him judge you by his terms, and then judge him by yours.

1 comment:

  1. Whether Bancroft made that exact quote or not, it neatly summarizes his overall approach to history.