Or, How, Sir, did this get to be about YOU?
For many years, that was the question to ask about James Boswell's massive tome recording the life and times of England's best-known dictionary-writing, Scotland-bashing, scrofula-having Great Cham, Samuel Johnson. Boswell had a major hand in creating the popular image of Johnson after the latter's death, and the story of the biography's composition has become something of an epic in its own right. The sheer tonnage of scholarship on the The Life of Samuel Johnson would be enough to have teams of oxen developing articulate speech simply in order to complain about having to haul it.
It is certainly safe to say that more people have read about Johnson than have read Johnson himself, and that's hardly surprising--Boswell makes him a better character than an author, and The Life gives the added bonuses of a fairly entertaining portrayal of 18th century London literary life and its related players. Boswell himself being one of them, and having always been a bit overtly ambitious about it, he gives himself a great deal of page-time, and many current scholars wonder if in his portrait he flattered Johnson, flattered himself, flattered Johnson's flattering him, or flattered himself flattering Johnson's flattering of his flattery. In any case, you're certainly meant to genuflect before Johnson, but you can't shake the feeling that Bozzy's1 standing slightly behind and to the left, waiting for you to be only slightly less impressed by him.
The trick here, then, remains writing about a book without writing too much about its author or subject, both of which are, of course, the most interesting things about it.
How's a man to get any writing done with all this gonorrhea about?
Any writeup involving Boswell would have to be a failure if it didn't mention the man's legendary whoring and tackle-fouling eighteen recorded cases of the disease you love to get, but hate to have. With a wife in Scotland and all the...distractions...of London at his doorstep , it's a wonder he ever finished The Life at all. It is somewhat less of a wonder that it took him the better part of a decade to write it. The idea had been in his head at least since 17752, and he'd been taking notes on Johnson's conversation since their meeting in 1763. It wasn't until Johnson's death, however, that The Life began in earnest.
Johnson reaffirmed Man's mortality in 1784. Soon after, several of his former friends and enemies put pen to paper to memorialize the giant and capitalize on his celebrity. Boswell had stiff competition in the biography business, and he was repeatedly warned by impatient publishers, patrons, and creditors that his version would swiftly sink in an increasingly saturated market. Among the available selection were:
Shortly after the latter was published, Boswell placed an ad in The Gentleman's Magazine explaining away the delay and promising a truly definitive work. Much of the time gone by was spent in soliciting and gathering material from Johnson's friends and relations, some of whom were more reluctant than others to expose either the man or themselves. Boswell relentlessly pursued their Johnson anecdotes and any written correspondence they had with him. Sorting this mound of material took time and effort, as Boswell became chronicler, historian, detective, trumpeter, editor, and censor, all in one.
He also had a great deal else on his mind. He never made it at the English bar, and couldn't make ends meet at the Scottish bar. His father, Alexander, Lord Auchinleck (1707-1782), who had always wanted him to mind his family and career, was dead, and now James was suposed to be in charge of the family estates, which were ailing without him. His debts were increasing, people were losing interest, and his publishers were telling him that no one would shell out a whopping two guineas for a biography of the century's premiere literary figure.
When he finally had the work published in 1791, Johnson had been dead for seven years. It was not considered a masterpiece by any standard--more on why in a moment. Several editions ran over the years; the last which Boswell had anything to do with appeared posthumously in 1799. People bought it, read it, enjoyed it, but it didn't quite set the Boswells up for life. What was earned was soon spent, and after his death in 1795, Boswell's family decayed into fodder, and his reputation rose and fell according to passing trends. Thomas Grey didn't think much of Boswell at all (though, as the book records, Samuel Johnson apparently didn't think much of Thomas Grey), and Warren Hastings allegedly called The Life the "dirtiest book in my library." It wasn't until the 19th century, when an 11th edition was released, that Lord Macaulay resurrected the book's reputation--even at the further cost of that of its author, whose sexual appetite and perceived meanness of character earned him no accolades amongst the Victorians. Shifting attitudes and the placating effects of time have relaxed modern opinions of Boswell the man, and the best view to take of The Life now is a bemusedly skeptical one. Or so I would have you believe.
And I swear, I'm not making this up
A bit here on the book itself, for your edification, approbation, and exasperation.
The Life of Samuel Johnson originally appeared in two fat volumes and contained more on the man than any other man in his right mind could bear. Oxford World's Classics do an unabridged version now that, with its ancillary materials, runs to about 1500 pages. The cover depicts an image of Johnson looking as though he's outraged either at its price, or the fact that the Penguin abridged version--the one almost universally purchased, perused, and preferred--is under a third of that length, but costs just under two dollars less. This version is based on that of 1799.
There are many reasons to have excised so much material, not the least of which is that much of it is simply of no interest to anyone who enjoys daylight and social acceptance. Another is that much of the biography is simply poorly written and almost comically structured. The Life indeed covers the entire life, but Boswell wasn't around for great honking chunks of it. If Johnson's greatest accomplishment was the Dictionary (it was), and he completed that in 1755 (he did), then it's worth remembering that it was already eight years behind him when Boswell showed up at Charles Dilly's as a simpering 23-year-old Scottish fanboy trembling in his idol's shadow.
Thus, the early part of Johnson's life is rather thin, the composition of the dictionary is not a major feature, and whenever Boswell is away from Johnson or vice-versa, you get one of these:
"Being that I was disappointed in my hopes of meeting Johnson this year (1780) so that I could hear none of his admirable sayings, I shall compensate for this want by inserting a collection of them, for which I am indebted to my worthy friend Mr. Langton, whose kind communications have been separately interwoven in many parts of this book."4
So there's a full year missing and some Johnsonia dropped in that could have come from any time in the past. This has the effect of straining the chronology of the work, and reducing the accuracy of Boswell's portrait. Johnson could have been thinking "well, I've finally managed to shake that irksome hanger-on for a spell. Have high hopes Nessie may eat him this winter." 1780 is not the only missed year.
In addition, of course, there are the gaps in his memory, the time between event and recording, his desire to portray himself well, and to defend Johnson's memory from less favorable interpretations. This all makes for some fairly dubious sketching.
How much would you pay NOW?
What you DO get, and get plenty of, are Johnson's Greatest Hits and some pretty impressive name-dropping. Boswell got himself in tight with the Literary Club, and the guest list for those meetings reads like that of a party I'd never get in to. Appearing in the book are:
- David Hume, philosopher (and Scotsman, damn him!)
- David Garrick, incredibly rich actor (a mere player, damn him!)
- Joshua Reynolds, portraitist to the stars
- Adam Smith, essayist (another Scotsman, damn him!)
- Oliver Goldsmith, playwright
- Tobias Smollett, novelist (still another Scotsman, damn him!)
- George Berkeley, idealist philosopher (I refute him thus!, damn him!)
- Henry Fielding, novelist
- Samuel Richardson, novelist
- Edmund Burke, essayist and philosopher
- et al., ad infinitum.
These were not all club members, but they were Johnson's contemporaries or near contemporaries, as were Alexander Pope, whom he adored, Jonathon Swift, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rosseau, Voltaire, and so on. He was Great amongst the Greats, and Boswell was--well, he was there, wasn't he? (And a Scotsman, damn him!)
But what would The Life be without the bon mots of one of England's best...bon motters? So here are some of the best known and most snarky that you'll find. There's a reason why Dr. Johnson is considered the most quoted English author next to Shakespeare.
Boswell: "Is not the Giant's Causeway worth seeing?"
Johnson: "Worth seeing? Yes; but not worth going to see."
Anonymous: "I don't understand you, Sir."
Johnson: "Sir, I have found you an argument; but I am not obliged to find you an understanding."
Johnson: "Sir, a woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all."
Johnson: "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel."
Johnson: "The noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees, is the high road that leads him to England!"
Johnson: "You may abuse a tragedy, though you cannot write one. You may scold a carpenter who has made you a bad table, though you cannot make a table. It is not your trade to make tables."
Johnson: "I would say to Robertson what an old tutor of a college said to one of his pupils:'Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.'"
And of course...
Johnson: "Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford."
There are countless more, and much else to be gleaned from longer passages and episodes that cannot be reduced to handy epigrams. Though I do love handy epigrams.
A writeup to equal The Life?
Wrapping up, then. Boswell's book does present a remarkable character in its titular subject. Johnson--Boswell's Johnson, anyway--is a fascinating man. Scarred, egotistical, argumentative, unkempt, unpredictable, deeply pious, but somehow practical, he is an icon of 18th century England. It is clear that Boswell does indeed to his best to portray a magisterial author of singular intellectual abilities. He does display the sometimes rude, sometimes irascible, and sometimes simply wrong sides of the doctor, but is always quick to apologize for his ill-tempered outbursts and defends his genius to the last.
Johnson has become a mythological character, and no doubt Boswell would have added a self-congratulatory chapter to The Life if he'd lived long enough to know it was his book we have to thank for it.
1"Bozzy" was one of Johnson's nicknames for Boswell. He also called Goldsmith "Goldy" (though the latter didn't care for it), Langton "Lanky," and Beauclerk "Beau." Eventually he took to referring to Thomas Sheridan as "Sherry Derry."
2Boswell suggested the idea in a letter to William Temple in this year.
3Mrs. Piozzi was previously Mrs. Thrale, who after her husband's death married an Italian music-master. Johnson considered the match beneath her, and dishonorable to his life-long friend, the late Mr. Thrale. Mrs. Piozzi and Johnson had a nasty falling out over the subject and were never reconciled. Her portrait of Johnson is not as kind as Boswell's.
Boswell, James. The Life of Samuel Johnson. Ed. Christopher Hibbert. London: Penguin Books, Ltd., 1979.
Sisman, Adam. Boswell's Presumptuous Task: The Making of the Life of Dr. Johnson. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2001.