Variety of Men
It is said that there is one book in every man—the book about himself and his experiences. To judge by the state of the book market, this saying appears to be true. Everyone now writes his autobiography, from retired politicians and generals to barkeepers and more or less reformed criminals. The book is there all right. Whether it satisfies any need except our curiosity to peer into the house next door is a different matter. The politicians are a dreary lot, and strangely enough, literary men are often as bad. Contrary to a widely received opinion, writing is not something which can be picked up late in life. Nor is it a general accomplishment which can be switched from one branch to another. Autobiography and reminiscence are specific arts which demand special qualities and usually a single-minded devotion. The autobiographer has both to believe himself interesting and to be justified in his belief. The rememberer on the other hand must have a genuine conviction that the people whom he meets are more interesting than he is. He does not need to suppress his own personality. It is indeed an essential part of the story, but it must be used to illuminate others, not himself.
THERE ARE exceptions to every rule. Boswell for example was intensely interested in both himself and others. As a result, he produced two different books from the same material: one published during his lifetime, the other trickling out now in installments. But usually it has to be one or the other. There is no one really interesting in Rousseau’s Confessions except Rousseau himself, despite the mention of many great names. Contrariwise, Greville, G.W.R. Russell, and Dean Burgon (author of that Victorian classic, Twelve Good Men) leave the shadowiest impression. Who for instance would guess the connection between Greville and Lady Hamilton? No really successful or distinguished man can write good memoirs. That is why the memoirs of prime ministers are so boring. Again there was an exception in Winston Churchill. But he was an experienced writer of memoirs before he became prime minister. In fact one occasionally has a suspicion that he became prime minister in order to write more memoirs.
Two writers, both highly successful in their different fields, have recently ventured into this difficult operation of writing memoirs. Both are a little embarrassed about it and make modest gestures of self-withdrawal. Toynbee must have realized that his memoirs were rather dull. For he explains that he could have written more maliciously about others had he not been restrained by pietas—a wish not to wound persons whom he loved or revered. Snow disclaims any autobiographical intention. He has only put himself in, he says, enough to make the stories intelligible. Evidently it is more difficult to keep yourself out of a book than Snow realizes.
The two writers have had different intellectual disciplines. Toynbee is a historian, or to be more precise, he has made generalizations dressed up as history …