By Adam SismanFarrar, Straus and Giroux, 351 pages, $25.00
James Boswell was the son of a hardheaded Scottish laird and his grimly religious wife. He did not have a happy childhood, and although he never lost his passion for the hills of Auchinleck (the family pronounced the name of their 20,000-acre estate Affleck), the call of London was strong. As a student—willingly in Edinburgh, miserably in Glasgow, where his father dispatched him in order to curb his passion for the theater (Glasgow had none)—he wrote terrible verse and an opera with a pointed title: Give Your Son His Will. He also supped and rollicked with a convivial group of young men. In these latter pursuits Boswell played something of the fool. But the philosopher lived in him too. His love of knowledge and literature won him the friendship of such Scottish intellectuals as David Hume and Hugh Blair (of Blair's Sermons).
Boswell was twenty-two when he moved to London, in 1762. The journal he then began in earnest shows not only how quickly he found his energetic and immediate style but also how futile his father's attempts at restraint had proved. Boswell found sex (it would be interesting to know more about his father's extramarital career) a drug of which he could not get enough, no matter what the consequences. The fool sought women, catching—and doubtless transmitting—venereal diseases more times than even the most devoted biographer would want to count. The philosopher had set his heart on meeting Samuel Johnson, who to an important extent became a substitute for Boswell's unsatisfactory father.
The desired encounter took place by accident in May of the following year, in the bookshop of a mutual friend, Thomas Davies. Boswell's entreaties that Dr. Johnson should not be told he was a Scot (Johnson famously despised Scots) were ignored; Johnson, while forgiving of Boswell's origins ("Sir, that, I find, is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help"), was displeased to be lectured on the merits of his old friend the actor David Garrick. ("I have known David Garrick longer than you have done: and I know no right you have to talk to me on the subject.")
Boswell was undeterred; Boswell was never deterred. Within weeks he had confided his life story to his new friend, had received a promise that Johnson would "take charge" of him, and had been encouraged in his habit of keeping a "fair and undisguised" journal. Best of all, perhaps, because Boswell was as eager as a puppy for love, he had been offered unconditional affection. Johnson had taken him "cordially by the hand" after a prolonged evening of conversation, Boswell proudly informed a former father-figure, Sir David Dalrymple. Johnson declared, according to Boswell, "My dear Boswell, I love you very much." Boswell then asked Dalrymple, "Can I help being somewhat vain?" It had, he added more soberly, meant much to him to win the friendship of a man whose effect on him was so beneficial: "I think better of myself when in his company than at any other time."
The friendship was not always so unruffled. "You have but two topics, yourself and me, and I'm sick of both," Johnson complained to his devoted recorder in 1776. Boswell stored the remark for future use. Being rebuked and mocked was a price he was willing to pay for a friendship that had become one of the few reliable strands in an unhappy and increasingly dissolute life. He was not Johnson's only friend, of course; it must sometimes have been painfully apparent that Johnson enjoyed the company of the Thrales and of mischievous Topham Beauclerk at least as much as his own.
Johnson could live without Boswell; some of his merriest moments took place without him, such as (when he was nearly fifty) daring a friend to climb over the wall into an Oxford college (the friend declined) and, on another occasion, beating a spirited teenage girl in a race across a lawn. He was often wittier in company other than Boswell's. He never showed any impulse to defer to the younger man. His will failed to mention Boswell; we must take Boswell's word for it that Johnson approved of this "presumptuous task"—the famous description of the Life of Johnson that Boswell gave in his preface to it.
Boswell has had the last laugh. By 1825, only forty-one years after Johnson died, his writings were out of print. They remained so for another hundred years, while Boswell's account of Johnson's life went through forty-one English editions in the nineteenth century. Thomas Macaulay's 1831 review did no harm: although Macaulay dismissed Boswell himself as "a man of the meanest and feeblest intellect," he used parallels with Eclipse, a celebrated racehorse, to assert plainly that Boswell was "the first of biographers ... Eclipse is first, and the rest nowhere."
Today Boswell's Life is still loved, esteemed, and discussed. We can look for its antecedents and find the same agreeably chatty tone in earlier writers—Vasari and John Aubrey come to mind. There was, however, no precedent for the writing of a biography in the naturalistic genre, as a Flemish portrait (thus did Boswell describe his work) that interwove life, letters, and a direct, conversational approach to achieve an extraordinary impression of spontaneity. This is what makes Boswell's Life continue to seem so modern, whereas Johnson's works seem irrecoverably stranded in their time.
Boswell's Life is more familiar to us than the man who wrote it. (This is partly because most of Boswell's letters and manuscripts were unearthed only in the past eighty years.) Frederick A. Pottle and later Frank Brady each produced a scholarly and entertaining volume that drew on this treasure trove; there has been little else. For an enthusiastic and intelligent biographer, then, Boswell was an ideal candidate: intriguing, quotable, and—always helpful—a possessor of many famous friends. It would be hard to find anybody who, as Johnson once remarked, did not have some connection, real or imaginary, to at least one celebrated person; but few have hunted down notable figures with such conspicuous success as Boswell. In addition to Johnson we can place not only Hume, Voltaire, Rousseau, Edmund Burke, and David Garrick but also Margaret Caroline Rudd, a notorious forger and confidence trickster with whom Boswell, to the disgust of his wife's friends, had a tormented affair. Boswell's life is unusual in illuminating not only the underworld of the prostitutes among whom he spent an impressive proportion of his time but also the heavy, static society of the Scottish aristocracy and the fierily loquacious world of London's "clubbable" men.
Peter Martin's fine biography, published in the United States last year, is racy, detailed, and lively, and his particular area of interest is the nature and effect of his subject's depression. The Life, Martin proposes, was written as an extended act of self-healing, as Boswell's method of dealing with his own secret devils. His ubiquitous and talkative presence in the book can, Martin tells us, be read as fulfilling the biographer's need "to define his indefinable self, in the archetypal pattern of a Romantic egotist."
Sisman offers a more persuasive and less dramatic interpretation of Boswell and his literary achievement. Where Martin follows Boswell from birth to death, Sisman focuses on the twenty-year friendship that formed the basis for Boswell's Life and on the unhappy years during which he worked on the biography (it was published in 1791, seven years after Johnson's death). In Sisman's tighter focus Boswell seems less a complex and driven character and more a literary artist.