I have been reading biographies of various authors for the last few months, and I must say, it has been an enlightening experience.
After reading as much of the poetry collection Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman (1819-1892) as I could stand, I decided to read his biography: Walt Whitman—A Life by Justin Kaplan. That helped to clue me into Whitman’s personality as well as his poetry to no small degree. Though his poetry does have strength and ingenuity in its audacious nature, I didn’t find it as wholesome as I had hoped. His nature was complex to the extreme, but I found myself repulsed by his attitude on so many levels. Even his “good works,” serving at hospitals and assisting injured soldiers during the Civil War seemed tainted by a personal vision that remained merely self-reflective and undetached. He insisted that he understood what it was to walk in everyman’s shoes but didn’t appear to realize that simply could not be true.
For all his apparent humility, he came across as someone who never stopped thinking about how others perceived him. That annoyed me. Could it have been the shadowed reflection of myself as a writer? Possibly. But even with that stark truth before me, the suspicions I had while reading his work rose once again in full Spector while reading about his life. It wasn’t just him. It was also the era in which he lived.
The 1800s were a remarkable period of human achievement and industry, with the “enlightenment” forces coming into full flower. It seemed as if there was nothing the human race could not achieve once we put our minds to it. But now, living in the 2020s, I see a crumbling of that remarkable dream and a tempering of our audacious nature. We did forge a remarkable “new world” going from pedestrians who lived in simple villages to wagon trains crossing a burgeoning nation, to ships rocketing into space. But we have also developed weapons of absolute self-destruction, which we are perfectly capable of using. Walt Whitman’s enthusiasm for the human race seemed premature, to say the least. His all-embracing fellowship lacked the keen-eyed admission of evil in our midst. Yet, his optimism shared an everlasting hope that every generation yearns to trust.
I found a more kindred spirit in the works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) and in his biography: Cross of Snow—A Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow by Nicolas A. Basbanes. Longfellow was a dignified man whose work has been appreciated and disparaged in turn. A man who loved and suffered through terrible tragedy with the humility of a faithful soul who did not faint under torturous grief. His poetry almost always uplifts me, even when I do not completely understand what he is referring to, simply because he comes across as a gentle man who is not proving himself to the world as much as sharing himself with the world. His education was remarkable as he, like many others of his age and prosperity, was able to take advantage of European educational experiences. Also, both his marriages were based on deep and abiding love, his second to Fanny, his partner in intelligence and wisdom, who died tragically in a fire. Though the tragedy wounded his spirit, it did not kill it. His soul—as well as hers—breathed in faithfulness few have ever known much less shared. That essence comes through in his work, and I was grateful to recognize it in his life.
The books and poems of Robert Lewis Stevenson (1850-1894) have always charmed me, so his biography: A Life of Robert Lewis Stevenson Myself and the Other Fellow by Claire Harman caught me off guard. I didn’t expect to encounter a pampered man who most of his life convalescing from one illness to another, married a woman many described as mad, and traveled the world as if he owned it. Certainly, he dealt with real sickness, though for many years his physical, mental, and emotional ailments may have been caused by his incessant need to live off his parents and drag parental sympathy and support from their excessive natures. Unlike Whitman, he seemed to have a more honest eye on his own helpless nature. His wife wasn’t an ego-builder by any means. His stepson soon followed in his worst possible ego-centric pattern and, though he loved the young man, he must have realized that neither he nor his wife had done the boy any favors.
Finally settling on an island in the South Seas, Robert Lewis Stevenson and his family entered a world they little understood, attempting to help when it was well beyond their power to do so. Their intentions were good. The reality was not. His laconic nature finally awoke when he had to physically work and suddenly discovered real health for the first time in his life. But death would have the last say before long.
Though his work remains as good as ever, I read his stories and poems with a certain sadness now, knowing that he was a man-child who never quite grew up. He was the boy-man who tried valiantly to make ends meet and overcome terrible odds. His success was doomed by the forces that offered him a chance to write in the first place—his wealth and his parents over protection. As his most famous work, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, suggests, he lived a double life. Don’t we all? Our interior self and the one we show the outside world.
In fact, the idea of a dual existence was the greatest takeaway I received from reading the works and biographies of these authors.
For me, the double life is not so much about the interior and exterior person, the haunted, insecure personality hiding inside a public figure, but rather, the struggle of each soul to become what it knows it must be in order to achieve true identity and fullness of life beyond the temporal reality we perceive so narrowly.
A personal worldview or epoch in time does not speak as loudly as the faithfulness of a soul responding to the One who created it. Love, endurance, selflessness, humility, and honesty, are the shaping forces that demand everything we have—but offer everything worth having.
In writing, as in any other craft, the author is more than reflecting him or herself but offering a particular temporal shaft of insight to others. That guiding light is not owned by the artist any more than a carpenter owns the sunlight that flows through the window he put in place. If the author gets in the way, he or she shadows the work. Only in humble love is the soul made so transparent that the light flows without hindrance.
I thank God for those writers who have gone before. However imperfectly their offerings, their gift of sharing eternal truth remains.
A. K. Frailey is the author of 17 books, a teacher for 35 years, and a homeschooling mother of 8.
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