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The Services of Biography.
There is no book more useful or more helpful than a good biography, for a biography is the written record of a person's life. If no record is written the man or woman may still be remembered and loved by friends and relatives; but, as time passes, memory will grow fainter and very soon there will be no one living who knew the person except by hearsay. His good deeds will live but when men ask, “When was he born? What did he look like? What were his ideals? What experiences did he have that may help me?” there will be no answer unless the answer is found in biography.
Think how much of our history would be lost if no one had ever written the life of Washington or Franklin or Jefferson or Lincoln or Lee or Roosevelt. But history would not be the only loser : you and I would find that something had gone out of our individual lives if we were deprived of the helpful comradeship that we find in biography. Whatever else you read or fail to read, do not omit biography. It will not only instruct you in the great events of the past, but it will help you in every crisis of your life. Biography is not only a masterful teacher, but it may be made a constant and intimate friend.
Autobiography of Lincoln.
We have spoken of the relation between letters and biography (Chapter LXXXI). When a man writes his own life,
as he consciously or unconsciously does in letters, we call the work an autobiography. The most famous autobiography ever written is that of Benjamin Franklin. But in the following letter, written in 1859, Lincoln has left us, if not an autobiography, at least an interesting autobiographical sketch :
I was born February 12, 1809, in Hardin County, Kentucky. My parents were both born in Virginia, of undistinguished families - second families, perhaps I should say. My mother, who died in my
tenth year, was of a family of the name of Hanks, some of whom now reside in Adams, and others in Macon County, Illinois. My paternal grandfather, Abraham Lincoln, emigrated from RockIngham County, Virginia, to Kentucky about 1781 or 1782, where a year or two later he was killed by the Indians, not in battle, but by stealth, when he was laboring to open a farm in the forest. His ancestors, who were Quakers, went to Virginia from Berks County, Pennsylvania. An effort to identify them with the New England family of the same name ended in nothing more definite than a similarity of Christian names in both families, such as Enoch, Levi, Mordecai, Solomon, Abraham, and the like.
My father, at the death of his father, was but six years of age, and he grew up literally without education. He removed from Kentucky to what is now Spencer County, Indiana, in my eighth year. We reached our new home about the time the State came into the Union. It was a wild region, with many bears and other wild animals still in the woods. There I grew up. There were some schools, so called, but no qualification was ever required of a teacher beyond “readin', writin', and cipherin’” to the rule of three. If a straggler supposed to understand Latin happened to sojourn in the neighborhood, he was looked upon as a wizard. There was absolutely nothing to excite ambition for education. Of course, when I came of age I did not know much. Still, somehow, I could read, write, and cipher to the rule of three, but that was all. I have not been to school since. The little advance I nowi have upon this store of education I have picked up from time to time under the pressure of necessity.
I was raised to farm work, which I continued till I was twentytwo. At twenty-one I came to Illinois, Macon County. Then I got to New Salem, at that time in Sangamon County, now in Menard County, where I remained a year as a sort of clerk in a store.
Then came the Black Hawk War; and I was elected a captain of volunteers, a success which gave me more pleasure than any I have had since. I went through the campaign, ran for the legislature the same year (1832), and was beaten the only time I ever have been beaten by the people. The next and three succeeding biennial elections I was elected to the legislature. I was not a candidate afterward. During this legislative period I had studied law, and removed to Springfield to practise it. In 1846 I was once elected to the lower House of Congress. I was not a candidate for reëlection. From 1849 to 1854, both inclusive, I practised law more assiduously than ever before. I was always a Whig in politics; and was generally on the Whig electoral tickets, making active canvasses. I was losing interest in politics when the repeal of the Missouri Compromise aroused me again. What I have done since then is pretty well known.
If any personal description of me is thought desirable, it may be said I am, in height, six feet four inches, nearly; lean in flesh, weighing on an average one hundred and eighty pounds; dark complexion, with coarse black hair and gray eyes. No other marks or brands recollected.
Notice how frank Lincoln is in his sketch. There is no attempt to appear other than he really was and no attempt to make his parents appear other than they really were. Then, too, the sketch is clear and orderly. Events are narrated in
the order of their occurrence and the facts are left to speak for themselves. Note the touch of characteristic humor in the last sentence. Can you write a sketch of your own life as clear and as well planned as this?
Autobiography of Hugh Pendexter.
Here is a different sort of autobiographical sketch. It is clear and orderly and interesting but it is not like Lincoln's. Mr. Pendexter gives no dates, says nothing about his birth or parents or personal appearance, and yet, at the close, we feel that we know him. Why? Because, being a story writer, he tells us only about that aspect of his life. The sketch might be called “How the Ambition to Write Stories Has Influenced My Life." It is a sketch written from the angle of the dominant interest :
When I was a little boy I wanted to write stories. I remember that I started several of them, though I had to print my words. I usually got discouraged after the first laboriously printed page and killed off all my characters and (sometimes in tears) vowed I would never, never attempt another. But I always did!
Everything I could get hold of I read. That wasn't much, for in the country village in Maine, where I lived, there were few books. And there were no playgrounds or other organized games in those days, so we boys had to make our own fun. We “played” Robinson Crusoe, or Indian and I think we liked Indian best, for we stuck to it longer, making tepees, garments of skins (though burlap bags often answered for skins), and became skillful with bow and arrow. Often they called this play "scouting.”
Well, years and years passed, and I taught Latin and Greek and then spent twelve years as a New York newspaper man but I could never get the “boy"out of my system, so I returned to Maine