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JAMES MCDONNELL Success and Failure: A Rhetorical Study of the First Two Chapters of Mill's Autobiography Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that situation will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. [Charles Dickens, David Copperfield] As regards my own education, I hesitate to pronounce whether Iwas more a loser or gainer by his severity. [John Stuart Mill, Autobiography] Few would contend that John Stuart Mill missed his vocation or that he did not succeed in the one for which he was bred. Nor is there much ground for saying that, despite his habitual modesty and frequent selfdepreciation , he considered himself a failure. 1 As a matter of fact, his stated reasons for writing his Autobiography imply that it is a success story. His thesis, as stated in the first paragraph, is that his mind was progressive, his education unusual and successful, and that he has incurred debts to those who helped him along the road. But the effect of the Autobiography is much more 'hesitant' than this opening expression of aims would lead us to expect. Underneath the thesis there runs an antithesis which implicitly states: 'My mind was nearly crippled; my education was of dubious benefit; I hate my father.' I am aware that these antithetical statements, while they are readily noticed by those of a psychoanalytical bent, will probably be regarded by literary critics as exaggerated. I am convinced however that they are an essentially accurate reflection of the suppressed drama which lies underneath Mill's stated thesis, and that that drama is not merely clinically revealing but is also rhetorically fascinating. It is obviously true that in the usual sense of the term Mill is not a 'creative' writer, but it seems to me equally true that his writing has distinctive merits which have been missed by many critics. His apparent objectivity and concentration on facts has perhaps made it difficult for some readers to see that time and again the transitions and juxtapositions of sentences are only superficially dictated by logic or by simple factual chronology. They are constantly and subtly suggestive of the order in which the facts were experienced and recollected, and therefore inevitably carry an implicit evaluation which is all the more intense because it comes unwatched from the writer's pen. Few (in writing at least) have fully endorsed Carlyle'S dismissal of the Autobiography as 'the autobiography of a steam engine,' UTQ, Volume XLV, Number 2, Winter 1976 110 JAMES MCDONNELL but it is a commonplace of criticism to describe it as 'intellectual' in a limited sense and usually with a limiting purpose.2 Mill, however, was concerned to show not only the influence of ideas on his life and mind, but of his life and experience upon the ideas and purposes to which he dedicated himself. It is indeed true that he lived a 'life of the mind' to a degree that few others ever have, and with an exclusiveness that few would wish to emulate. But this is not to say that he was a 'thinking machine,' or that his writing is 'nothing more than analytic.' However lacking in 'poetical power,' or in 'sensory description' the Autobiography may be, it conveys both what it was intended to convey and also that truth which lay in the 'emotive driving force' of Mill's life. It documents the success story that he, with considerable justice, felt his life to be, but it also embodies the complexity and uncertainty that made that success a heroic achievement. Far from being arid, Mill's Autobiography is a rhetorically accomplished and moving account of the initiative into, the vicissitudes attending, and the consolidation of an intellectual career and lifetime vocation that was supremely important in nineteenth-century England. Of course it would be absurd of me to deny certain inescapable facts about the work. The final version is a carefully pruned, guardedly edited, sober record. Mill toned down and sometimes even omitted feelings of humiliation, failure, and resentment that he had expressed in earlier drafts. And even these earlier drafts, although more unguarded than the final text, are not essentially different in...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 109-122
Launched on MUSE
2015-07-01
Open Access
No
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