Writing an Autobiography

One of my favorite free Kindle books is The Story of My Life by Clarence Darrow, the great criminal defense lawyer best known as the hero in the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925. The book is available from Project Gutenberg Australia. This post is an excerpt written in 1932, six years before he died.

Clarence Darrow courtesy of Wikipedia.

I have noticed that most autobiographers begin with ancestors. As a rule they start out with the purpose of linking themselves by blood and birth to some well-known family or personage. No doubt this is due to egotism, and the hazy, unscientific notions that people have about heredity. For my part, I seldom think about my ancestors; but I had them; plenty of them, of course. In fact, I could fill this book with their names if I knew them all, and deemed it of the least worth….

It is obvious that I had nothing to do with getting born. Had I known about life in advance and been given any choice in the matter, I most likely would have declined the adventure. At least, that is the way I think about it now. There are times when I feel otherwise, but on the whole I believe that life is not worth while. This does not mean that I am gloomy, or that this book will sadden the Tired Business Man, for I shall write only when I have the inclination to do so, and at such times I am generally almost unmindful of existence.

But as I write these words the sun is shining, the birds are making merry in the bright summer day, and I am asking why I sit and plague my brain to recall the dead and misty past while light and warmth and color are urging me to go outdoors and play.

Doubtless a certain vanity has its part in moving me to write about myself. I am quite sure that this is true, even though I am aware that neither I nor any one else has the slightest importance in time and space. I know that the earth where I have spent my life is only a speck of mud floating in the endless sky. I am quite sure that there are millions of other worlds in the universe whose size and importance are most likely greater than the tiny graveyard on which I ride. I know that at this time there are nearly two billion other human entities madly holding fast to this ball of dirt to which I cling. I know that since I began this page hundreds of these have loosened their grip and sunk to eternal sleep. I know that for half a million years men and women have lived and died and been mingled with the elements that combine to make our earth, and are known no more. I know that only the smallest fraction of my fellow castaways have even so much as heard my name, and that those who have will soon be a part of trees and plants and animal and clay. Still, here am I sitting down, with the mists already gathering about my head, to write about the people, desires, disappointments and despairs that have moved me in my brief stay on what we are pleased to call this earth.

Doubtless, too, the emotion to live makes most of us seek to project our personality a short distance beyond the waiting grave. But whatever the reason may be, I am doing what many, many men have done before, and will do again–talking and gossiping about the past. I am doing this as a boy plays baseball by the hour or dances through the night. I am doing it because all living things crave activity, and I am still alive. Whether the movement is a journey around the globe or an unsteady walk from the bedroom to the dining room and back, it is but a response to what is left of the emotions, appetites and energies that we call being.

The young man’s reflections of unfolding life concern the future–the great, broad, tempestuous sea on whose hither shore he stands eagerly waiting to learn of other lands and climes. The reactions and recollections of the old concern the stormy journey drawing to a close; he no longer builds castles or plans conquests of the unknown; he recalls the tempests and tumults encountered on the way, and babbles of the passengers and crew that one by one dropped silently into the icy depths. No longer does the aging transient yearn for new adventures or unexplored highways. His greatest ambition is to find some snug harbor where he can doze and dream the fleeting days away. So, elderly men who speak or write turn to autobiography. This is all they have to tell, and they cannot sit idly in silence and wait for the night to come.

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