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HUMAN DOCUMENTS

An Introduction By Sarah Orne Jewett

To give to the world a collection of the successive portraits of a man is to tell his affairs openly, and so betray intimate personalities. We are often found quarrelling with the tone of the public press, because it yields to what is called the public demand to be told both the private affairs of noteworthy persons and the trivial details and circumstances of those who are insignificant. Some one has said that a sincere man willingly answers any questions, however personal, that are asked out of interest, but instantly resents those that have their impulse in curiosity; and that one's instinct always detects the difference. This I take to be a wise rule of conduct; but beyond lies the wider subject of our right to possess ourselves of personal information, although we have a vague remembrance, even in these days, of the belief of old-fashioned and decorous people, that subjects, not persons, are fitting material for conversation.

     But there is an honest interest, which is as noble a thing as curiosity is contemptible; and it is in recognition of this, that Lowell writes in the largest way in his "Essay on Rousseau and the Sentimentalists."

     "Yet our love of minute biographical details," he says, "our desire to make ourselves spies upon the men of the past, seems so much of an instinct in us, that we must look for the spring of it in human nature, and that somewhat deeper than mere curiosity or love of gossip." And more emphatically in another paragraph: "The moment he undertakes to establish . . . a rule of conduct, we ask at once how far are his own life and deed in accordance with what he preaches?"

     This I believe to be at the bottom of even our insatiate modern eagerness to know the best and the worst of our contemporaries; it is simply to find out how far their behavior squares with their words and position. We seldom stop to get the best point of view, either in friendly talk or in a sober effort, to notice the growth of character, or, in the widest way, to comprehend the traits and influence of a man whose life in any way affects our own.
 

     Now and then, in an old picture gallery, one comes upon the grouped portraits of a great soldier, or a man of letters, or some fine lady whose character still lifts itself into view above the dead level of feminine conformity which prevailed in her time. The blurred pastel, the cracked and dingy canvas, the delicate brightness of a miniature which bears touching signs of wear - from these we piece together a whole life's history. Here are the impersonal baby face; the domineering glance of the schoolboy, lord of his dog and gun: the wan-visaged student who was just beginning to confront the serried ranks of those successes which conspired to hinder him from his duty and the fulfilment of his dreams; here is the mature man, with grave reticence of look and a proud sense of achievement; and at last the older and vaguer face, blurred and pitifully conscious of fast waning powers. As they hang in a row they seem to bear mute witness to all the successes and failures of a life.

     This very day, perhaps, you chanced to open a drawer and take in your hand, for amusement's sake, some old family daguerreotypes. It is easy enough to laugh at the stiff positions and droll costumes; but suddenly you find an old likeness of yourself and walk away with it, self-consciously, to the window, with a pretence of seeking a better light on the quick-reflecting, faintly impressed plate. Your earlier, half-forgotten self confronts you seriously; the youth whose hopes you have disappointed, or whose dreams you have turned into realities. You search the young face; perhaps you even look deep into the eyes of your own babyhood to discover your dawning consciousness; to answer back to yourself, as it were, from the known and discovered countries of that a baby's future. There is a fascination in reading character backwards. You may or may not be able easily to revive early thoughts and impressions, but with an early portrait in your hand they do revive again in spite of you; they seem to be living in the pictured face to applaud or condemn you. In these old pictures exist our former selves. They wear a mystical expression. They are still ourselves, but with unfathomable eyes staring back to us out of the strange remoteness of our outgrown youth.

     "Sure I have known before
          Phantoms of the shapes ye be -
     Haunters of another shore
          'Leaguered by another sea."

     It is somehow far simpler and less startling to examine a series of portraits of some other face and figure than one's own. Perhaps it is most interesting to take those of some person whom the whole world knows, and whose traits and experiences are somewhat comprehended. You say to yourself, "This was Nelson before ever he fought one of his great sea battles; this was Washington, with only the faintest trace of his soldiering and the leisurely undemanding aspect of a country gentleman!" Human Documents - the phrase is Daudet's, and tells its own story, with no need of additional attempts of suggestiveness.

     It would seem to be such an inevitable subject for sermon writing, that no one need be unfamiliar with warnings, lest our weakness and wickedness leave traces upon the countenance - awful, ineffaceable hieroglyphics, that belong to the one universal primitive language of mankind. Who cannot read faces? The merest savage, who comprehends no written language, glances at you to know if he may expect friendliness or enmity, with a quicker intelligence than your own.

     The lines that are written slowly and certainly by the pen of character, the deep mark that sorrow once left, or the light sign-manual of an unfading joy, there they are and will remain; it is at length the aspect of the spiritual body itself, and belongs to the unfolding and existence of life. We have never formulated a science like palmistry on the larger scale that this character-reading from the face would need; but to say that we make our own faces, and, having made them, have made pieces of immortality, is to say what seems trite enough. A child turns with quick impatience and incredulity from the dull admonitions of his teachers, about goodness and good looks. To say, "Be good and you will be beautiful," is like giving him a stone for a lantern. Beauty seems an accident rather than an achievement, and a cause instead of an effect; but when childhood has passed, one of the things we are sure to have learned, is to read the sign-language of faces, and to take the messages they bring. Recognition of these things is sure to come to us more and more by living; there is no such thing as turning our faces into unbetraying masks. A series of portraits is a veritable Human Document, and the merest glance may discover the progress of the man, and dwindled or developed personality, the history of a character.

     These sentences are written merely as suggestions, and from the point of view of morals; there is also the point of view of heredity, and the curious resemblance between those who belong to certain professions. Just what it is that makes us almost certain to recognize a doctor or a priest at first glance is too subtle a question for discussion here. Some one has said that we usually arrive, in time, at the opposite extreme to those preferences and opinions which we hold in early life. The man who breaks away from conventionalities, ends by returning to them, or out of narrow prejudices and restrictions grows towards a late and serene liberty. These changes show themselves in the face with amazing clearness, and it would seem also, that even individuality sways us only for a time; that if we live far into the autumnal period of life we lose much of our individuality of looks, and become more emphatically members of the family from which we spring. A man like Charles the First was already less himself than he was a Stuart; we should not fail in instances of this sort, nor seek far afield. The return to the type compels us steadily; at last it has its way. Very old persons, and those who are dangerously ill, are often noticed to be curiously like their nearest of kin, and to have almost visibly ceased to be themselves.

     All time has been getting our lives ready to be lived, to be shaped as far as way be by our own wills, and furthered by that conscious freedom that gives us to be ourselves. You may read all these in any Human Document - the look of race, the look of family, the look that is set like a seal by a man's occupation, the look of the spirit's free or hindered life, and success or failure in the pursuit of goodness - they are all plain to see. If we could read one human face aright, the history not only of the man, but of humanity itself, is written there.
 



NOTES

Jewett's introduction to "Human Documents" appeared in McClure's Magazine (1:16-18) in June 1893. "Human Documents" was a continuing series of portrait studies of famous people. Jewett introduced the series in the first issue of McClure's.  The essay was reprinted in The Jack London Journal 1 (1994) 268-272.
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Lowell ... "Essay on Rousseau and the Sentimentalists": James Russell Lowell (1819-1891), an American poet and literary critic, is remembered for his humorous poetry, such as "The Biglow Papers" (1848). "Essay on Rousseau and the Sentimentalists" (1867) appears in Lowell's Prose Works, Volume II. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1892. (Research: Chris Butler).
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     "Sure I have known before
          Phantoms of the shapes ye be -
     Haunters of another shore
          'Leaguered by another sea."

This is by the British poet, William Watson (1858-1935), from "The Raven's Shadow," in The Poems of William Watson, New York: Macmillan, 1893.  (Research: John Swift, Occidental College).
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Nelson: Horatio Nelson (1758-1805) was the British naval commander in the wars with Revolutionary and Napoleonic France. He won crucial victories in the battles of the Nile (1798) and Trafalgar (1805), among others. In Trafalgar, he was killed by enemy fire on the HMS Victory. (Source: Encyclopedia Britannica; Research: Chris Butler).
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Washington: (1732-1799), commander of the American Revolutionary Army and first president of the United States (1789-1797).
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Daudet's: Alphonse Daudet (1840-1897), French novelist and author of sketches.  The location of this phrase is unknown.  Help is welcome.
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palmistry: reading character and foretelling the future by means of studying the palms of a subject's hands.
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Charles the First: Born in Scotland in 1600, Charles became the second Stuart king of England in 1625 (The first was his father, James I). Tensions rose between the king and Parliament over time, due chiefly to religious differences. The king was sympathetic with the High Church Party, who believed in the retention of traditional formulaic church rituals, while the Puritans, who favored individual church leadership, were gaining power in the Parliament. This led to a civil war in England between the royalists and the Parliamentarians. The latter party won, and Charles was executed on January 30, 1649. (Source: Encyclopedia Britannica; Research: Chris Butler).
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Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, with assistance from Chris Butler, Coe College.


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Uncollected Essays