Gilbert: Biographical Truth

May 16, 2016

Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said that “All biography is autobiography.” It’s usually taken to mean that in writing about other people, biographers reveal something about themselves - by the perspective they take, the elements of the person’s life that they focus on, and the interpretations they make of the person’s life. It might be thought of as a large but subtle Freudian slip.

I’m reminded of a line in the movie True Grit, marvelously delivered by John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn, when he sees the spunky young Mattie Ross swim her horse across the river rather than let him get away. Leaning on the railing of the little rope ferry, Cockburn looks out, sees what Mattie’s bravely doing, and says with an admiring smile, “By God, she reminds me of me!”

But an examination of the context in which Emerson made his famous statement, a eulogy in 1860 in Boston, reveals that that’s not what he meant.

Beginning his eulogy with a little bit of light humor, Emerson said, “I have the feeling that every man’s biography is at his own expense.” Now, by that Emerson didn’t mean that a biography invariably harms its subject. He meant that the subject does a lot of the work - that he even helps write the thing himself, that he “furnishes not only the facts but the report.” Emerson continued, “I mean that all biography is autobiography.” That’s because it’s only what people tell of themselves that comes to be known and believed. For example, he said, in Plutarch’s biographies of Alexander and Pericles, “you have the secret whispers of their confidence to their lovers and trusty friends.”

What this means to the living and the dead – as in the case of the good man Emerson was eulogizing - is that the things he said to others, publicly or privately, all inure to his honor and benefit, in life and afterwards. Conversely, when one’s statements, whispers, and confidences are not entirely honorable, that too will be weighed and presumably found wanting, at least to some degree, by those who remember the person, by his or her biographers, and by history.

And it reminds us that it may be prudent to remember that, “It is by the mouth that the fish is caught.”