Samuel Johnson’s Life of Richard Savage is among the most enigmatic of the great man’s accounts of writers. As presented by Johnson, Savage is a man who was subjected to shame and humiliation by his putative mother, wandered the London streets for want of a bed, and lived off the generosity of friends, but, for all that, produced plays and poetry of worth. Richard Holmes’s delightful Dr. Johnson & Mr. Savage (1996) shows how consciously selective Johnson was in producing this somewhat hagiographical portrait.
It is not often that a writer gets the benefit of the doubt from his biographer. Indeed, in recent years, literary biography as a genre has become—with notable exceptions—one in which the writer is cut down to size, shown not warts and all but warts and little else.
Mark Schorer’s 1963 account of the life of Sinclair Lewis is a mean-spirited, pusillanimous account of a writer who could have used a little sprucing up. A more generous account of Lewis has recently appeared by Richard Lingeman (Sinclair Lewis: Rebel From Main Street). I for one was happy to read it. Most of us don’t want to know bad things about our friends, even if they are true, and this not ignoble impulse is magnified when we have come to love an author’s work.
The word “authority” comes from “author,” and we want the writer to address us from some eminence. Sometimes it is the author himself who destroys the saving distance, as Trollope did in the autobiography published after his death. The great novelist’s matter-of-fact approach to his craft, his knowledge of every pound and pence he had earned by his writing, shocked a generation who preferred a more romantic and ethereal notion of artistic creation. Trollope’s self-description of turning out 2,000 words in two hours every morning and his likening of the writing of a novel to making a pair of shoes destroyed the illusion.
Fiction is always at least obliquely moral, and we want to think that the authors of War and Peace, Shadows on the Rock, The Spoils of Poynton, and Sword of Honour can illumine the mystery of human action and prompt meditation on what it all means because of who they were. Reading such works, we are confident that we are in good hands and that the appraisal of character and action, however implicit, is wise and right. Perhaps this is the source of our shock when we learn that a writer who has enlarged our minds and imagination and opened up the secrets of the heart is a vindictive wastrel, womanizer, and toper.
There is an odd disconnection between art and artist in this regard. Plato spoke of inspiration as madness, the poet possessed, an undeserving mouthpiece for something greater than himself. It is interesting that Plato does not think of the philosopher in this way. He insists that the wisdom of Socrates was a function of the person he was. Who can forget the closing lines of the Phaedo? “Such was the end, Echecrates, of our friend; concerning whom I may truly say, that of all the men of his time whom I have known, he was the wisest and justest and best:’
Moral bounders seem capable of producing art, though I doubt they can produce great art. But could an unvirtuous man be a philosopher? He could be a logician, certainly; he could excel in other abstract subjects. But would he be able to enlighten us on morals? I suspect many of my philosophical colleagues would think that some fallacy is involved in making our work dependent on our character. Perhaps this is because of our exiguous notion of what philosophy is. Or fear following on a modicum of self-knowledge.
Once, philosophy was the love of wisdom. Perhaps an unwise person could learn descriptive truths about wisdom, but we would not want him for our guide. I have just finished a book I call The Very Rich Hours of Jacques Maritain: A Spiritual Life. Maritain was the first philosopher I ever read, truly a blessing. What occurred to me as I worked on the book was that Maritain, unlike most of the other famous philosophers of the 20th century, was both a moral and an intellectual model. I have come to believe that only a good man can be a good philosopher in the classical sense. Who would want to be like Bertrand Russell, Heidegger, or Iris Murdoch? Who would say of them what Plato said of Socrates? Of Maritain we can speak in that way. Like his mentor, St. Thomas Aquinas, his intellectual life was a function of his spiritual life.