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view critic complained in 1848 about the “increased and increasing size” of
biographies and autobiographies that attempted to “furnish a complete his-
tory of the world from the creation to the present day.” There were several
keys to such prolixity. First, the “number of volumes given to the record of
a man’s life is apparently regarded as truly indicating his real position in the
world.” The second key was inherent in the nature of autobiographies: of-
ten written by men and women in their old age, they were egocentric works
composed “when small events become dignified, and great events are belit-
tled, . . . when the faculty of nice discrimination is, in a good degree, lost,—
and when the temptation to discursiveness, garrulity, and all manner of gos-
sipry has become irresistible.”14

Critics perhaps retained far more interest in the moral lessons supplied
by autobiographers than they cared to admit. Though generally rejecting
John Foster’s vilification of autobiographers who were courtesans, drunk-
ards, and criminals as “self-describers who thus think the publication of
their vices necessary to crown their fame,” late-antebellum critics seemed
incapable of deciding whether they wanted “faithful” accounts focused on
the exterior or the interior of an autobiographer’s life. They struggled to de-
termine how “modest” an autobiographer should be. On this point, the crit-
ics represented two schools. The first argued that autobiography should
serve as an “example of a life which gives at once a proof of the possibility
of virtue, shows the means of its attainment, and the glorious results of its
acquisition.”15

Such critics viewed autobiographies primarily as documents revealing
the nature of the times in which authors lived. They saw autobiographers as
providing a view behind the scenes while drawing a curtain over the inti-
mate details of personal lives. In 1859 an Atlantic Monthly reviewer ex-
pressed such a moralistic view: “We think there is getting to be altogether
too much unreserve in the world. We doubt if any man have the right to take
mankind by the button and tell all about himself, unless, like Dante, he can
symbolize his experience. Even Goethe we only half thank, especially
when he kisses and tells, and prefer Shakespeare’s indifference to the inti-
macy of the German.”16

The second school of critics wanted “to be admitted behind the scenes,

14. North American Review, 66: 349-50 (April 1848).

15. Foster, Essays, 78; North American Review, 70: 333 (April 1850).

16. Atlantic Monthly, 4: 771,773 (December 1859). See also Atlantic Monthly, 6: 373-76 (Sep-
tember 1860).

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