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The Atlantic Monthly | September 2001
Books & Critics
Boswell's Presumptuous Task
A dazzling portrait of James Boswell as a literary artist
by Miranda Seymour
by Adam Sisman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 351 pages, $25.00
ames 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.
oswell'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.
Sisman has no time for the idea that Boswell put himself into the Life as a way of dealing with his own troubled state of mind. His reasons for Boswell's ubiquitous presence in the book are more intriguingly devious; plausibly sustained, they show Boswell as a skilled manipulator of the truth. Sisman's approach is attractive and stimulating to anybody interested in the ethics of biography writing. If we acknowledge that Boswell was a master of literary technique rather than a precise recorder of facts, can we still allow his portrait of Johnson to be authentic? Or is it better to approach the Life as a web of half-truths? Sisman does not answer these questions; he does make his readers aware of the need to give them serious consideration.
Boswell was not alone in feeling that he had a special claim on writing about Johnson. But he did have one striking advantage over his rivals: the journals and notebooks in which he had recorded Johnson's conversations, monologues, and observations. The difficulty that faced him was how best to make use of them. How could he most easily animate these dusty recollections while ensuring that their authenticity was not questioned? The answer he found was to put himself at the center of events. Because Boswell is always present, chatting, smiling, inquiring, we are easily led to believe that these comments were indeed made. And if, led by Sisman, we start to look at the Life under a microscope, we soon notice how often Boswell slipped in some tribute by a friend or acquaintance, or even by Johnson, to his remarkable memory and powers of observation. "O that his words were written in a book," exclaims a Mr. Cradock, just after Boswell has modestly regretted his inadequate representation of Johnson in full flow. Mr. Cradock is not the only person to voice this wish in a book that neatly answers that need. It is a deft trick, and an effective one.
Boswell's presence gives the Life its extraordinary verisimilitude. We, too, seem to be rolling jerkily along in a coach to Bath or Bridport as Johnson leans forward to address his friend. When we hear Johnson and Topham Beauclerk teasing Boswell about his ancestry and then relenting ("You are an exception, though," Johnson declared. "Come, gentlemen, let us candidly admit that there is one Scotchman who is cheerful"), we are there beside them. The possibility that the words are of Boswell's contriving never occurs to us—but Johnson and Beauclerk were dead when he wrote them. How do we know that his memory was always precise? We don't—but the scene seems so authentic that we accept the conversation as real. This illusion of reality is in some ways Boswell's greatest achievement. The Life opens a door into a room filled with spirited and argumentative people with whom we are instantly at home, not least because our friend the biographer stands among them, buoyant and at ease.
o Boswell is in the book to validate it and add authenticity. But Sisman proposes that we also notice his performance of a more selfless task. Johnson had insisted that any biography written by a friend should show the faults as clearly as the virtues; to achieve this end Boswell was willing to sacrifice himself. Again and again in the Life we find the biographer playing the fool to provoke Johnson into a not always agreeable candor. All pious dismay and disapproval, Boswell nudges Johnson into declaring that a man's appetite for a good meal should never be affected by the just hanging of a friend. On another occasion Boswell brightly comments that the best way to hurry a friend out of town before he loses all his money is for his companions to pick quarrels with him. "Nay, Sir, we'll send you to him," Johnson answers. "If your company does not drive a man out of his house, nothing will." Asked to explain himself, Johnson admits that he lost his temper over Boswell's defense of Americans earlier in the conversation (Johnson detested Americans) and took the first opportunity to strike back. "This," Boswell cheerfully adds, "was a candid and pleasant confession." We forget how neatly he contrived it.
The contrivances are what interest Sisman most. Natural and authentic though the biography of Johnson seems to the reader, it is a work of considerable artifice. To begin with, Boswell had to create the impression of a steady companionship, given that he had spent only about 400 days with Johnson over a period of just over twenty years. The illusion was greatly assisted, as Sisman points out, by Boswell's observation of minute detail. The precise descriptions of Johnson's appearance, manner, and tone of voice that are scattered throughout the Life convey the impression of a gentle passage of time being recorded at close quarters. Boswell's acknowledgment in 1779 of his failure to keep a regular account of Johnson's conversations that year leads the reader to understand this omission to have been exceptional. But this is misleading: there were other years during which Boswell had little or no contact with his mentor.
It was, Boswell insisted, an honest portrait. Sisman's microscope shows that it was not. For example, the Life emphasizes Johnson's devotion to his wife and protects him from any misunderstanding of his relationship with Anna Williams, the blind poetess of whom he took care for many years. It does not disclose that a year after Mrs. Johnson's death, in 1752, her husband contemplated marrying again. Why did Boswell not make use of this? Sisman argues that the idea of a second marriage was inconsistent with Boswell's conception of Johnson's character, so he decided to omit it. "I had now resolved Life into my own feelings," Sisman quotes him as saying in 1789. For Sisman, this is an important statement. Summarizing Boswell's achievement and the reasons for his omissions and reworkings of the evidence, Sisman offers this analysis: "To understand the experience of another, we must relate it to our own. Boswell's Johnson is a heroic expression of Boswell himself."
A book that concentrates so intently on the making of Johnson's biography sometimes leaves the reader feeling shortchanged about the details of Boswell's own life. Sisman writes with great wit and elegance about the social background (he is exceptionally sharp on the subtle shifts in England's attitude toward Scotland during Boswell's lifetime), and he is as alert as Martin to Boswell's gaffes as a courtier. Martin's hilarious account of Boswell's attempting to impress the King of Prussia by wearing a fetching Scottish bonnet is matched, deliciously, by Sisman's description of Boswell's announcing his connection to the Scottish royal line to the Hanoverian George III, who was distinctly unamused. But it is difficult not to wish for more information about Boswell's early life, prior to his friendship with Johnson. Sisman could also have told us more about the pitiful and extraordinary relationship Boswell had with his wife. Martin reminds us that Boswell used her as his confessor, and that on one bizarre occasion he took her with him when he went hunting for whores in Edinburgh. Moments like this offer revealing glimpses of a darker, demon-ridden side to James Boswell's nature that can't be detected in Sisman's sparkling, companionable, and intelligent account.
Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; September 2001; Bozzy's Life; Volume 288, No. 2; 140-142.