The Collected Letters, Volume 11


TC TO THOMAS BALLANTYNE ; 23 February 1839; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18390223-TC-TB-01; CL 11: 32-34


Chelsea, 23rd Feby., 1839

My dear Sir— … As for the question of Autobiography, I think you have yourself put it on the right footing; and anything I have to say can only be confirmatory of what is already your own view. Autobiography, if well done, is the most universally interesting of all things; any man's life will interest us if he tell it with insight, with candour and simplicity, without self-conceit; in a word, wisely and not foolishly. A man, moreover, who has cut his way from a jungle of confusions, in which he first found himself imprisoned and bewildered, he is precisely the man we wish to hear on such a matter.

As to the time when, this is as you rightly feel a question of circumstances; not to be decided absolutely, but by judicious appreciation of Pro and contra. At a later age one's view is clearer, as you say, but then one's interest is faded, perhaps altogether gone. Benvenuto Cellini says, “Every man who has accomplished aught virtuous or resembling virtue ought to write his own life; but not to begin so fine an enterprise till he be past forty”:1 this is Cellini's judgement, which however is binding upon nobody. I should say rather, “Let him not begin so fine an enterprise till he feel that he is ready for it.” A man, I think, is ready to write on a thing when he perceives that he has got above it, that he has shaken it off from him, and can survey it without egoism, spleen, exaggeration, or other perversion; for bad writing, what is it in any case but untrue writing, a writing of the thing which is not,2 painting of a picture which resembles not God's Truth and Reality but our own poor Falsehood and Hallucination? Stupid writing there is too, which does not even resemble a Hallucination but only a Stupidity and Bungling; like a canvas covered with lampblack and water; most melancholy: of that we speak not.— I say therefore, when one sees the thing as it is, feels that one has got it under his eye, then one can speak of it, on due impulse. For the rest, on this as in all other questions I have the greatest faith in a genuine instinctive desire. What you do in sincerity wish to attempt, what your heart will be glad in performing, that attempt to perform, then and there. Only be careful to ascertain that it is a sincere internal wish, not a superficial extrinsic one, for great errors are made on that head! Johnson used to say, “Read the book you wish at the time you wish it; the effect it produces is deepest then.”3 I apply this rule to almost all things,—to Autobiography and your case; and find few rules so good, if one apply it honestly.

Thus my advice, you perceive, is mainly that you well advise with yourself. At all events, why not try the undertaking; you will then see best of all whether you have a call to it. The written record can at least do no ill, to yourself it will infallibly do good; and though written, it need not be printed till you see cause otherwise. Nay I think at any rate it will do you no good to have the public much in your eye in writing such a thing; write what seems lucid, beautiful or significant to your own mind, and believe always that the public will adjust itself to that, or at worst that you can do nothing else for the public. Life in Paisley, in the workshops, at the firesides of the poor, this ought to be fully given; as a thing little known to readers, and a thing well deserving to be known—perhaps of all others the most important thing in these days: and as for your own feeling about it, I greatly mistake you if those young Scottish years, with their thrift and rigour and necessitous affection and endeavour, are not the dearest to your heart of all you have seen or hope to see. Let a man “stand always by his own order,” I say! It is the oldest order of all; and derives its patent, as a great member of it said, “direct from Almighty God.”

Do you know Thomas Ellwood's Life of himself? Gifford's (prefixed to the Baviad);4 still more Jung Stilling's, translated not long ago from the German;5 and Eckermann's (Goethe's Secretary) which somebody said was inserted not long ago in the Penny Magazine?6 I mention these not as models (you must take no model), but as writings of worth each in its kind, which of course have more or less relationship to your enterprise, and are likely to throw light on it. Finally be honest, be singlehearted, modestly fearless, be not diffuse; and do your best and truest: I have no other advice to give.7

This is a much longer Letter than I counted on writing; but doubtless you read me with patience, and are certain at least that I mean to do you service if I could. At any time, if I can assist you in any way, it will give me true pleasure. If I ever pass through Bolton I will call at the Free Press Office; but that I fear is not likely.— Believe me always,

My dear Sir, / Yours very truly, /