Much have I written on Samuel Johnson, and deservedly so. The focus here, however, will be more on James Boswell, Johnson biographer, a reluctant lawyer, son of a Chief Judge in Edinburg. He wrote two books on Johnson. The first, Tour of the Hebrides, published in 1786 two years after Johnson’s death, is an account of a journey the pair of them made to the Hebrides, the western coast and islands of Boswell’s Scottish homeland. Much more than a travel journal, the Tour brims with Johnson, his ruminations, comments and observations, a brilliant memoir. Boswell’s masterpiece, The Life of Samuel Johnson, came five years later in 1791. Subsequent editions of it have often merged the two chronologically.
Boswell and Johnson met in a London tavern on May 16, 1763. Johnson was 54 and Boswell just 22. Their 21 year friendship and the union of their special talents—Johnson: the classic scholar, a voracious reader, a gifted writer, an articulate conversationalist, his wit and humor often ascerbic; Boswell: a fine writer, an inveterate journal-keeper with an astonishing memory, his dramatic sense, his capacity for admiration, the ability to draw others into conversation—out of all that came The Life.
Despite its continuing popularity, the most readable and read book of the 18th century, scholars still squabble about it, writing new versions of Johnson’s life and volumes of mostly unread and unreadable analysis and criticism.
The dispute seems to be between Johnsonians on the one hand and Boswellians on the other. Both seem to forget that Boswell respected and loved, even idolized Johnson, as Johnson did Boswell.
Instead Johnsonians believe that their man is too important a literary figure to be left to Boswell, a fool who wrote his book on Johnson, according to Thomas B. Macaulay, by the freakish of accident, nothing but a compilation of edited excerpts from his massive diaries. Half the biography is about the last nine years of Johnson’s life when he was old, fussy and querulous. It doesn’t do justice to Johnson’s literary personality which is best inferred from his formidable body of work. With its many flaws and omissions, particularly of Johnson’s early life, with Boswell’s tendency to talk too much in his own person on many matters, The Life of Samuel Johnson is not a biography at all, rather an autobiography of the author himself.
Even those who reluctantly concede The Life to be a minor masterpiece argue that the good is often enemy of the best. Boswell so persuades his readers that his Johnson is the Johnson that it is virtually impossible to read Johnson’s writings without Boswell’s version of him rising from the pages.
One suspects, too, that part of the criticism of Boswell grows out of resentment for his excesses. Boswell had little control of himself. He talked too much, drank too much and he died from an acute and chronic urinary tract infection following repeated gonorrheal strictures. In his personal discipline, Boswell neglected all the principles desired in men who accomplish important things.
The Boswellians feel the quarrel stems from the Johnsonians’ preference for biographies that convey information with absolute fidelity to truth and their dislike of literary biographies. In a literary work, an author feels free to invent, dispose, weigh and enliven his writing to achieve an intensity of effect. He may sacrifice a little truth to portray a greater verity.
Few biographies are unequivocally literature. Boswell’s is. For its readers it produces a powerful effect closely akin to those which characterize the best works of fiction. Boswell’s finest artistic talent is his selection of facts, conversations, letters and events, all conveying Johnson so concretely in a literary form that Johnson himself invented with his biography of Richard Savage.
After all the flaws and omissions of Boswell’s book are enumerated, one is inclined to respond, “So what?” The issue is not whether the Life is distorted by Boswell’s concentration on the last few years of Johnson’s life. Rather, if Johnson’s character is essentially unchanged throughout his life, then the abundance of material available on the last few years was as useful to Boswell as the same amount of material spread evenly over Johnson’s 75 years. Also, if Boswell has failed to stuff his biography with criticism of Johnson’s works, remember that literary criticism is datable. Today’s theory expires tomorrow.
Where, then, does that leave us. Let us hope, exactly where we should be. Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson is for everybody, one of those rare books whose principal characters give it universal appeal. We read it slowly because we want it to last longer. Johnson’s personality overwhelms us; we envy him his never failing wisdom and his acerbic wit. But Boswell is intensely interesting, too, not only because he is so interested in himself but also because we find in him more of ourselves.
James Boswell died May 17, 1794. May the recent anniversary of his death remind those of us who treasure literature and who feel no compulsion to overexamine it for whatever reason of our responsibility to preserve it. Too many once commonly admired books have been dropped from our canon. The loss of generally shared texts puts basic communications in jeopardy. We build a new Tower of Babel. Our literary works of genius are much too valuable to society to entrust their future to experts or any other self-appointed arbiters of taste or correctness.
–Joe DeSalvo, Owner, Faulkner House Books