Another plan has been adopted by modern Historians, with beauty and with address, but upon which two or three words of caution will not be superfluous.
It is the habit of making the departed write his own Life, by the help of a key to his cabinet; that is, in other words, the habit of making him surrender, when he is no more, his naked thoughts and secret affections to all the world, in his Letters of private and familiar confidence to his friends, which no hermetical seal can protect against the homage of his admirers (whether sagacious or improvident), the self-interest of Editors, or the impatient thirst of an idle and vacant hour for its amusement.
In general, a more judicious mode of creating an interest for the object cannot be imagined.
Mr. Gray's correspondence, in the hands of his brother Poet and Friend, is a master-piece of its kind. There is not a more pleasing or a more interesting mirrour of a celebrated character.
But the selection of those Letters was most happily formed: it was calculated for the liveliest impression of the habits which formed the tenour of that life; and without prejudice to the delicacy of confidence, or the purity of the Writer's fame.
But I cannot be selfish enough to enjoy the amusement of reading the published Letters, either meant when written for the "sole and separate use" of the entrusted Friend, or at least not intended for the public eye, unless they do honour to the Writer, who is thus a Correspondent by force in a posthumous address to the world. It is a very disingenuous conduct in the Editor, if he throws the dust of any disrepute upon his Favourite. — It is worse, for it is cruel, if it affects the moral character thus obtruded on the public view; or if it implicates the reputation of others who are no parties in the contract. And he is a bad citizen who is guilty of it, where the popular name of the Writer is made a kind of oracle for principles of dangerous influence upon the moral discipline of the world.