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John Foster and his successors established the general framework for
critical assessments of autobiographies between 1805 and 1845. Their in-
fluence, especially on style, persisted until the 1850s and resonated clearly
in critical writings about autobiography. By then, the reader had far outdis-
tanced the author as the perceived chief beneficiary of autobiography, cred-
ibility had acquired more significance than an accurate tracing of the stages
in one’s moral development, narrative technique had taken precedence
over concern about exhibitions of self-love, and documentation of the past
had become more important than self-revelation.

Originally published as a review of De Quincey’s Autobiographic
Sketches
in the London Quarterly Review in 1853, Thomas McNicoll’s sixty-
four-page essay “Auto-Biographies” symbolized the expansion of Foster’s
conventions. Interestingly, McNicoll did not question De Quincey's self-
revelations so much as his style. His works, McNicoll charged, were
episodic and lacked “beauty of form and highest symmetry.” Furthermore,
De Quincey was not “content with indulging in a copious and ramifying
text, this also, in its turn, is loaded and enriched by numerous illustrative
notes, often of great value, which hang loosely on the body of the work, like
the scalps in an Indian’s wampum-belt.” Yet because De Quincey tried to
present “a daguerreotype portrait,—a literal and detailed truth to nature,"
he qualified as a “writer of subtle genius” whose works represented “a kind
of riches that our judgment might have forbidden us to desire, but which
our avarice will not suffer us to refuse.”24 McNicoll divided autobiogra-
phies into the episodic, common life, adventure, history/adventure, and the
literary. He gave considerable space to those of Benvenuto Cellini, Ben-
jamin Franklin, Goethe, Leigh Hunt, Bayard Taylor, Chateaubriand, and
Lamartine, and argued that autobiographies varied as widely as nature. Un-
like Foster, McNicoll found all autobiographies instructive. Even though
the autobiographer be the

vilest, poorest, and idlest of his race . . . as man he is joined to a far
higher economy, and stamped with a more Divine significance; nor
can he fail to illustrate, even in his obscurest wanderings, and in his
most humble deeds, the majesty of spiritual laws and the mystery of
human life. . . . there is in every man a separate individuality of
thought and action, each breathing its peculiar moral. . . . if we follow
carefully the least of these despised, we shall find him to be the central

24. Thomas McNicoll, Essays on English Literature (London, 1861), 60-61.

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