The Magnum Opus


THERE is a certain kind of reader who vexes himself and teases the critic with the question whether the author of a great classic really put into it all that an enthusiastic reader asserts that he finds. Is it a conscious art, or has all the greatness, all the subtlety and meaning of it, been thrust upon it by the critic? A suspicious reader can usually be set. right by passages in which the author himself has spoken of his art. A critic is as little likely to see more than he was intended to see as a stream is likely to rise above its source. If anybody doubts whether Boswell meant to produce the effects for which he is famous, let him gather up everything that the man said about his art, about Johnson’s theory of biography, and, above all, everything that he said about his own books, and he will convince himself that Boswell’s effects were all calculated.

I have set down elsewhere the characteristics which, in my opinion, distinguish the Life of Johnson, and account for the supreme position to which it has been universally assigned. That analysis I do not propose to repeat. It may suffice to say that Boswell ’s general notion was to defy the very powers of oblivion and to preserve his friend as complete and as vivid as he had been in the flesh. With a sufficient amount of assiduity from a sufficient number of people, such a result, he thought, might almost have been attained. Perhaps he was right. Perhaps, on the other hand, he failed to reckon with the fact that not everyone who might feel inclined to record Dr. Johnson had the genius of a Boswell for doing it.

In all Boswell’s complacent references to himself, in the whole range of his pomposity and self-conceit, he never once called himself that which in fullest truth he was — a genius. I doubt whether Boswell ever guessed that he was a genius. His fault was vanity - conceit, if you will — rather than pride. I mean that he loved to talk about himself, loved to dream of becoming a ‘great man,’strutted and put on airs, but never, so far as I am aware, really overestimated his own powers or his own achievement . He was modest in his own despite, though having no intention whatever of being so. In the group of quotations about the Life of Johnson that follow, there is much vanity and a great deal more of self-assertion than there should be; but there is nothing in all his references to himself that can for a moment compare with Macaulay’s famous summary, to which, I fancy, every critic would now assent: ‘Homer is not more decidedly the first of heroic poets, Shakespeare is not more decidedly the first of dramatists, Demosthenes is not more decidedly the first of orators, than Boswell is the first of biographers. He has no second. He has distanced all his competitors so decidedly that it is not worth while to place them. Eclipse is first, and the rest nowhere.’ And again,‘He has, in an important department of literature, immeasurably surpassed such writers as Tacitus, Clarendon, Alfieri, and his own idol Johnson.’ Had Boswell read such sentences as these about himself he would have swooned away with amazement.

The three passages which I here adduce were all written in the early months of the year 1788. The first of them is from a letter to Bishop Percy, thanking him for the assistance which he had given.

Procrastination, we all know, increases in a proportionate ratio the difficulty of doing that which might have once been done very easily. I am really uneasy to think how long it is since I was favoured with your Lordship’s communications concerning Dr. Johnson, which, though few, are valuable, and will contribute to increase my store. I am ashamed that I have yet seven years to write of his life. I do it chronologically, giving year by year his publications, if there were any; his letters, his conversations, and everything else that I can collect. It appears to me that mine is the best plan of biography that can be conceived; for my readers will, as near as may be, accompany Johnson in his progress, and, as it were, see each scene as it happened. I am of opinion that my delay will be for the advantage of the work, though perhaps not for the advantage of the author, both because his fame may suffer from too great expectation, and the sale may be worse from the subject being comparatively old. But I mean to do my duty as well as I can.

Some six weeks later he wrote to Temple: —

Mason’s Life of Gray is excellent, because it is interspersed with letters which show us the Man. His Life of Whitehead is not a life at all; for there is neither a letter nor a saying from first to last. I am absolutely certain that my mode of biography, which gives not only a history of Johnson’s visible progress through the world, and of his publications, but a view of his mind, in his letters and conversations, is the most perfect that can be conceived, and will be more of a Life than any work that has ever yet appeared.

In April he wrote to Miss Anna Seward (the Swan of Lichfield), in reference to the various works on Johnson that had appeared, Hawkins’s Life, Mrs. Thrale’s Anecdotes, her Letters of Samuel Johnson, Tyers’s biographical sketch, Towers’s essay, Last Words of Samuel Johnson, and More Last Words:—

What a variety of publications have there been concerning Johnson. Never was there a man whose reputation remained so long in such luxuriant freshness as his does. How very envious of this do the ‘little stars’ of literature seem to be, though bright themselves in their due proportion. My Life of that illustrious man has been retarded by several avocations, as well as by depression of mind. But I hope to have it ready for the press next month. I flatter myself it will exhibit him more completely than any person, ancient or modern, has yet been preserved, and whatever merit I may be allowed, the world will at least owe to my assiduity the possession of a rich intellectual treasure.

It will be seen from the last sentence that Boswell made a distinction in his own mind between the importance of the principles which he had discovered and the particular biography which he had written; and in drawing this distinction the present writer may hope to avoid the charge of inconsistency. He had full confidence in the method which he had adopted, and counted on it to help him write ‘more of a Life than any that has ever yet appeared’; but that he had not only found the method but also written the classic example of it, — that he was, to speak temperately, as illustrious a writer as Johnson, — this, luckily, he did not see. Plainly, it is of his ‘assiduity’ rather than his genius that he boasts.

To Boswell, I suppose, the task seemed to make a special demand upon one’s assiduity. The work that had required genius (which, let me add, is a great deal more than an infinite capacity for taking pains) was over and done with. Boswell’s genius, as distinct from mere industry, had exhibited itself in originating such a plan, in the whole conception of Johnson as the hero of a drama of almost national proportions; in his realization of the importance and interest of Johnson’s talk, and in getting it on paper. He was annoyed, as every author is, by the people who were afraid of him, afraid that he ‘might put them in a book.’ People hesitated to meet him after the publication of the Life, and wondered whether their every word would be written down by this deputy of the Recording Angel. He had something like a quarrel with his friend, Sir William Scott, because that gentleman, in inviting him to dine, had seen fit to caution him not to embarrass the guests by writing down their conversation. Boswell thereupon declined the invitation. Sir William wrote to him, explaining the ‘principle’ of his request, and apparently pointed out that the persons who feared to meet Boswell were thinking of the lot of the minor characters in the Life, who had served only as foils to Johnson. Boswell, in accepting the apology, made the following declaration of his own principles, which, it will be seen, was intended as a sort of official utterance: —

If others, as well as myself, sometimes appear as shades to the Great Intellectual Light, I beg to be fairly understood, and that you and my other friends will inculcate upon persons of timidity and reserve, that my recording the conversation of so extraordinary a man as Johnson, with its concomitant circumstances, was a peculiar undertaking, attended with much anxiety and labour, and that the conversations of people in general are by no means of that nature as to bear being registered, and that the task of doing it would be exceedingly irksome to me. Ask me, then, my dear Sir, with none but who are clear of a prejudice which you see may easily be cured. I trust there are enough who have it not.

It is clear from this that Boswell deemed himself more than a mere realist who was registering life just as it is. It was not sufficient to make records. It was essential first to find your ‘great intellectual light.’ That was the work of genius, as it was the work of genius to conceive the tremendous plan of letting the reader accompany Johnson on his ‘progress through life.'

Such was the work of genius, but the task of taking infinite pains remained. He was almost submerged by his own material, not to speak of the material, good and bad, that poured in upon him, every scrap of which must be tested for its authenticity as well as for its inherent interest. The marvel is that he did not give up the task. Indeed, the thought occurred to him, for he wrote to Temple: —

You cannot imagine what labour, what perplexity, what vexation, I have endured in arranging a prodigious multiplicity of materials, in supplying omissions, in searching for papers buried in different masses — and all this besides the exertion of composing and polishing. Many a time have I thought of giving it up. However, though I shall be uneasily sensible of its many deficiencies, it will certainly be to the world a very valuable and peculiar volume of biography, full of literary and characteristical anecdotes (which word, by the way, Johnson always condemned as used in the sense that the French, and we from them, use it, as signifying particulars), told with authenticity and in a lively manner. Would that it were in the booksellers’ shops. Methinks, if I had this Magnum Opus launched, the publick has no farther claim upon me.

One of the evidences of the greatness of the book is the fact that so little has, in the course of a hundred and thirty years, been added to our information about Johnson. If we except Miss Burney’s Diary, which Boswell tried in vain to tap, no record of first-rate interest and no really novel view of Johnson have been discovered. Dr. Hill published two volumes of Johnsonian Miscellanies, uniform with the Life, which, if they serve no other purpose, cause the work of Boswell to shine by contrast. Every scrap about Johnson has been gathered up and given to the world, — I have myself taken part in the work, — and the world has quite properly neglected it, preferring Boswell.


Immediately after the appearance of the Tour, Boswell began his preparations for writing the Life. His first task was to collect Johnson’s letters and such reminiscences of him as seemed authentic. He made application by letter to Bishop Percy, the Reverend Dr. Adams of Oxford, Francis Barber (who had in his possession papers of the highest value to a biographer of Johnson), Anna Seward, and, no doubt, a score of others. The material which he received from such contributors he often wrote down in their presence, or revised the written record in their presence. It is to be regretted that we have no accounts of any of these sessions, for they would have revealed the biographer at one of his most characteristic and important tasks, which must have exercised all the powers of insinuation and tact which he possessed.

He thought at first that he could finish the book by the spring of 1789; but the care of Auchinleck, the death of Mrs. Boswell in the early summer, and his ill-advised candidacy at the General Election for an ad interim membership in Parliament, conspired to prevent it. Moreover there was his ‘master,’ Lord Lonsdale, upon whom it was necessary to dance attendance, and who frequently summoned Boswell to his table to provide amusement (of no literary kind) for his retainers, or ‘Ninepins.’

Yet, in spite of all interruptions, he had nearly completed the first draft before the year was out, and by February, 1790, he could say that it was fairly in the press. The printers of the eighteenth century were a long-suffering generation. They actually began the printing of a book before the author had completed the manuscript. When they had received enough copy to fill up a sheet, the type was set, and proofs were pulled and sent to the author for correction. When he returned them, the sheet was printed and folded, and the type in the form distributed. The printer’s devil hovered between the compositors and the author, bearing proofs hot from the press and appeals for more copy. It is only by imagining such a state of affairs, alien enough from those of our day, that we can understand the circumstances of Boswell’s life in 1790 and 1791, when his ‘great work’ was passing through the press before he himself had completed the rough draft of it. He gasped sometimes at its ever-increasing magnitude — baulking at first at the thought of two volumes.

His chief assistant in the work — a man who has never received his due for his generous and friendly service — was Edmond Malone, the Shakespearean scholar. Malone, as a member of the Literary Club, had known Johnson. He respected Boswell’s genius. The friendship of the two men is said, by a somewhat doubtful anecdote, to have been cemented (if not actually formed) in 1785, in the printing-house, where Boswell found Malone examining with admiration one of the proof-sheets of the Tour to the Hebrides. Malone’s labors on the Life began with the revision of the rough draft of the manuscript which Boswell read aloud to him in the quiet of Malone’s ‘elegant study.’ Of the copy that was sent to the printer no sheet is known to exist; but we have two sets of proof-sheets, both of which were scanned, in whole or in part, by Malone.

These proof-sheets are a fascinating study. Their owner, Mr. R. B. Adam (a Johnsonian scholar of no mean standing) has repeatedly provided me with opportunities for examining them. The first of the two sets covers only 224 pages of the first volume, of which three signatures (I, K, and L) are lacking. The set consists exclusively of the sheets for which Boswell had demanded a second ‘revise,’ or corrected proof; so that the lack of the three signatures may merely indicate that, in these cases, no revision was asked for — that is to say, that Boswell had but one proof of those particular sheets. This entire set of proof-sheets is quite new to the world of scholars, though it may have been known to ‘collectors’ in England. Mr. Adam acquired it in March, 1920.

The other set of proof-sheets, bought for £127 by the elder Adam in 1893, is practically complete. These proofs were sold when the Auchinleck library was, in part, dispersed; they passed from the hands of the salesmen, Messrs. Sotheby, Wilkinson, and Hodge, to Mr. Adam, who added them to his already famous collection of Johnsoniana and Boswelliana in Buffalo. There they were examined by the great editor of the Life, Dr. George Birkbeck Hill, whose study of them may be found in the first volume of Johnson Club Papers, published byMr. Fisher Unwin in 1899. This set of proof-sheets also lacks one or two signatures, — why, I do not know, — the loss of which has been made good by the insertion of the corresponding pages from the first edition.

Whether still other proof-sheets may be found, it is difficult to say. Certainly there was never more than one complete set. One or two more of the earlier sets of ‘revises’ will probably turn up; but there is, I think, no great doubt that Mr. Adam’s library now contains most of the proof-sheets that ever existed. It is probable that, as Boswell progressed in his work, not more than one proof was necessary. One sheet in the set, marked as approved for the printer, bears the message in the compositor’s or ‘reader’s’ hand, ‘ More copy, please’ — a plain indication that only one proof was then being shown.

Apart from merely verbal changes in the interests of style, the important alterations in these proof-sheets are of two kinds: (1) insertion of new matter in the text; and (2) excision of ‘ old ’ matter, already set up in type. Of these the latter is by far the more important. We are not specially interested to know when a given paragraph or sentence was introduced into the work; whereas a suppressed passage may — nay, probably does — contain information more piquant than that of the context, and may give us new facts. For example, it is not significant to know that the paragraph about Johnson’s faith in the supernatural was an insertion after the printing had begun; but it is interesting to read Boswell’s opinion of Goldsmith’s attire, which was first inserted, and then struck out: ‘His dress [was] unsuitably gawdy and without taste.’ In writing of Mr. Wedderburn’s Scotch dialect, it is first said, ‘Though his voice produce not a silver tone, but rather a hard iron sound, if that expression may be used,’ — this remark Boswell struck out of the proof as, presumably, too personal.

But, in general, the excisions are remarkably few. The additions are much more numerous, and are usually put in to lend color and variety. For example, when Dr. Adams suggested to Johnson that he engage as assistant in a projected task, the French Dr. Maty, Boswell wrote, at first: ‘Johnson declared his disapprobation of this in contemptuous tones ’; but altered it to read: ‘ “ He! (said Johnson,) the little black dog! I’d throw him into the Thames.” ’ Here evidently was a remark which Boswell decided, on second thoughts, it was safe to risk. So, again, the illustrations of odd definitions in Johnson’s Dictionary were added in the first proof.

The writing on the proof-sheets is in at least four different hands. Boswell’s own comments are not infrequently of that highly personal character which distinguishes whatever he did — ‘Let me have another Revise sent to Sir Joshua Reynolds in Liecester [sic] Square, where I dine, and it shall be returned instantly.’ ‘I am sorry the compositor has so much trouble.’ ‘I shall see this at the Printing house to-morrow morning before it is thrown off. Tuesday.’ ‘ This Remains till an answer comes from Dr. Warton.’ Few books have been read for the printer with more scrupulous care.

Malone saw the proof-sheets of three quarters of the book. His advice was generally intended to make the style smoother. For example, on page 84, he writes of Johnson’s poem, ‘Friendship,’ which Boswell had introduced without sufficient explanation: ‘Something shd be sd about its appearing in this year & having been given by Mr. Hector.’ On page 124, he comments: ‘Too abrupt ’; and adds a sentence of his own to serve as introduction to Dr. Johnson’s letter to Birch. By an odd error, Dr. G. B. Hill assumed that Malone’s handwriting was that of the ‘reader’ at the printing-house, and thus he missed the significance of some of the corrections. It was Malone, for example, who suggested to Boswell that he should suppress the mention of Johnson’s hands as ‘not over-clean,’ in the famous scene which depicts Johnson as squeezing lemons into a punch-bowl, and calling out, ‘Who’s for poonsh?' ‘“He must have been a stout man,” said Garrick, “who would have been for it.’” This remark, too, was canceled at the same time.

Five of the signatures (or folded sheets of eight pages) are marked by Malone as approved for the press. These are Rr — Xx, and they contain no corrections in Boswell’s hand. I judge that they were corrected by Malone during some illness or indisposition of Boswell’s. It is to be feared that the joy of seeing his book in proof sometimes led our Boswell to convivial indulgence in port, making the correction of his pages well-nigh impossible. At any rate, signature H (pp. 50-56) shows plain evidence of such incapacity; for he has made four distinct attempts to alter ‘the scantiness of his circumstances’ to ‘Johnson’s narrow circumstances,’ and has barely succeeded on the fourth attempt.

After November, 1790, Boswell had no further help from Malone, who was obliged to go to Ireland. A third hand appears in the proof-sheets when Malone’s is no longer found. It may be that of Mr. Selfe, the ‘reader’ at the printing-office, but I do not think so; for Selfe read the proof-sheets after they were returned by the author. The hand I cannot identify, but it is that of a learned man.

Some day there will probably be found a copy of the Life more interesting than any which is at present known to exist. I refer of course to Boswell’s own copy. It may, perhaps, still be in the possession of the representatives of the Boswell family. I do not know. The Boswell family have persistently repulsed all scholars who have had the temerity to apply to them for assistance. But they have already sold Boswell’s own copy of the Tour, which is said to contain annotations by the author on nearly every page. When the author’s copy of the Life is found, his annotations will enable some future critic of Boswell to complete this history of the composition of that work. Meanwhile, the reader no doubt feels that he has already had enough.