I have often thought that there has rarely passed a life of which a judicious and faithful narrative would not be useful. For, not only every man has, in the mighty mass of the world, great numbers in the same condition with himself, to whom his mistakes and miscarriages, escapes and expedients, would be of immediate and apparent use; but there is such an uniformity in the state of man, considered apart from adventitious and separable decorations and disguises, that there is scarce any possibility of good or ill, but is common to human kind. A great part of the time of those who are placed at the greatest distance by fortune, or by temper, must unavoidably pass in the same manner; and though, when the claims of nature are satisfied, caprice, and vanity, and accident, begin to produce discriminations and peculiarities, yet the eye is not very heedful or quick, which cannot discover the same causes still terminating their influence in the same effects, though sometimes accelerated, sometimes retarded, or perplexed by multiplied combinations. We are all prompted by the same motives, all deceived by the same fallacies, all animated by hope, obstructed by danger, entangled by desire, and seduced by pleasure. 
—Dr. Samuel Johnson, The Rambler

Dear C,

I’ve been rereading  my accumulation of work by and about Sam Johnson, and have come across passages like the above, which reminded me of my interest in biographies, like you, of people involved in creative endeavors.  So, here are some I have loved over the years (I read the Arendt biography in 1989), though I would’t say I recommend them; rather I would encourage you to trust your instinct (or passion!)  about what would you love to pore over.  


James Boswell, Life of Samuel Johnson [“Indeed I cannot conceive of more perfect mode of writing any man’s life, than not only relating all the most important events of it in their order, but interweaving what he privately wrote, and said, and thought; by which mankind are enabled  as it were to see him live, and to ‘live o’er each scene’ with him, as he actually advanced through the several stages of his life.  Had his other friends been as diligent and ardent as I was, he might have been almost entirely preserved.  As it is, I will venture to say that he will be seen in this work more completely than any man who has ever yet lived.”]

W. Jackson Bate, Samuel Johnson  [“Johnson’s lifelong conviction—against which another part of him was forever afterward to protest—that indolence is an open invitation to mental distress and even disintegration, and that to pull ourselves together, through the focus of attention and the discipline of work, is within our own power.”

Rosemary Ashton, George Eliot: A Life  [“Yet the desire to write, and to read, biography arises in the first place out of admiration for the achievements of that subject. Of course George Eliot’s books are her ‘best’. Just because they are so, we are interested in the life from which they emerged.”] 341

Simone Petrement, Simone Weil: A Life [ {Soon after, she was summoned to the police station. Since she thought that they might have decided to arrest her, she packed a small suitcase with some clothes and a copy of the Iliad. Her parents went with her, waiting for her on the terrace of the cafe just across from the police station.”]

Robert Richardson, Emerson: The Mind on Fire   [“The single most important part of E’s education was that provided by his aunt Mary Moody Emerson. It was she and not the Boston ministers or Harvard professors who set the real intellectual standards for the young Emerson and his brothers.  23  She possessed enormous force of character and limitless energy.  23  As she said of herself, she read zigzag through fields, authors, and even books. 24  [She] could neither believe completely nor be comfortable in her unbelief. 25  Everything about her was bold, vigorous, extravagant. 25 ADVICE: ALWAYS DO WHAT YOU ARE AFRAID TO DO.  25  her hunger for personal experience of the strongest, most direct kind must have pushed Waldo to settle for nothing less authentic, less direct, or less original in his own life.”  27  ]

Joseph Fitzgerald, editor, The Essential Sri Anandamayi Ma: Life and Teachings of a 20th Century Indian Saint   [She suggests that the cure from our severe illness cannot be brought about by engineers, sociologists, or psychologists but by doctors of the soul. She prescribes a drastic revolution in our views and attitudes from outwardness to God-centeredness. I was encountering someone  who was the very embodiment of the Holy, the “wholly other.” And yet Anandamayi Ma was also so close and accessible.]

William C. Carter, Marcel Proust   [“Marcel wrote Jeanne that Simone’s beauty occupied his thoughts: ‘My memory and my imagination offer me from time to time stereoscopic sessions of your daughter’s smile and gramophone records of her voice. I’ve given these pastimes a rather old-fashioned title, The Pleasures of Solitude.’ Many years later, long after Proust had died, Jeanne saw that her daughter had inspired the radiant girl of sixteen who appears in the closing pages of the novel, Mlle de Saint-Loup, whose youth and beauty, the Narrator says, are made up of all the years he had lost.”]

Elizabeth Young-Breul, Hannah Arendt: For Love off the World  [“She asked him if he was an anti-Zionist, as it was not common for organizations aiding emigration to Palestine to hire anti-Zionists, but when he said that he was in fact anti-Zionist (a stance he later abandoned), she offered him the job anyway.  The business taken care of, they talked about their families—Arendt producing her Litvak maternal grandfather Jacob Cohen as evidence of their shared past–and about the Yiddish language, which she, unlike many well-educated, assimilated German Jews, did not look down upon.  The afternoon ended with Chanan Klenbort twice hired: once by Agriculture et Artisanat and once by Arendt herself, for private tutoring in Hebrew,  ‘I want to know my people,’ she told him.”

Sara Parkin, The Life and Death of Petra Kelly [“For all the people trying to work for the environment, human  rights and against any sort of injustice who were not close to the epicenters of global power politics (and in some cases not even close to a library) to be on Petra’s mailing list was a lifeline to inspiration, information, and hope.”]

M., The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna:  [M. (humbly): “How ought we to live in the world?”  Master: “Do all your duties, but keep your mind on God. Live with all—with wife and children, father and mother—and serve them. Treat them as if they were very dear to you, but know in your heart of hearts that they do not belong to you. … If you enter the world without first cultivating love for God, you will be entangled more and more. You will be overwhelmed with its danger, its grief, and its sorrow. And the more you think of worldly things, the more you will be attached to them.”]

John Armstrong, Love, Life, Goethe:  Lessons of the Imagination from the Great German Poet  [“Goethe is at odds with both conformism and eccentricity. Conformism is the desire to be like other people, just because we want to fit in. Eccentricity is the condition of wanting to be different from other people, because one fears being like others. What’s wrong in each case is that the focus is on other people. Being oneself is an independent project. “]

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