“I have often thought that there has rarely passed a life of which a judicious and faithful narrative would not be useful.”
And interesting – at least in the hands of the appropriate writer. The default appeal of biography, fiction and history is our interest in the lives of others. The same can be said of gossip, which is merely a bastardized and incomplete form of biography. Call it “imaginative projection,” if that makes you feel better. Humans are interested in humans, for reasons good and otherwise.
Above, Dr. Johnson is writing as a biographer – and the future subject of the greatest of all biographies. By the time he wrote that passage, in the October 13, 1750, issue of The Rambler, Johnson had already written his life of Richard Savage. His biography of Sir Thomas Browne would appear in 1756, and more than twenty years later he would produce his masterpiece, The Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets (1779-81). In his Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (1785), Boswell reports Johnson saying: “I esteem biography, as giving us what comes near to ourselves, what we can turn to use.” Note the repeated appearance of usefulness. By this, Johnson largely refers to moral utility. We can learn from the examples, admirable and otherwise, of our fellows. Johnson continues, and again cites “use”:
“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 newspaper editor once told me that every story is about either a person or an idea. That oversimplifies things but it’s a useful distinction. Ideas hold little attraction for me as a writer. They tend to be gaseous and pretentious, and attract the wrong sort of person. I've always liked talking to and writing about people, the more obscure and unheralded the better. Is there anything drearier, more bullshit-ridden than “celebrity” journalism? In the introduction to his first book, My Ears Are Bent (1938), the great New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell writes for me:
“The people in a number of the stories are of the kind that many writers have recently got in the habit of referring to as ‘the little people.’ I regard this phrase as patronizing and repulsive. There are no little people in this book. They are as big as you are, whoever you are.”