Boswell's Presumptuous Task

by Adam Sisman
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1860

In the preface to his first book, Boswell wrote, “I have an ardent desire for literary fame.” Even in his early twenties he knew that he would seek that fame as a biographer. He was less certain of his subject. Among his early candidates was the Scottish philosopher David Hume. Although the two quarreled in 1763 because Boswell published some of Hume’s private comments, Boswell had not abandoned this project as late as 1776, when he interviewed the dying Hume to probe the philosopher’s atheistic views. During his Grand Tour in the mid-1760’s, Boswell met Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and he unsuccessfully sought out Frederick the Great. Boswell interrupted his Italian sojourn in 1765 to travel to rugged Corsica in pursuit of General Pasquale Paoli, leader of the island’s abortive struggle for independence. Although this excursion led to An Account of Corsica (1768) and to Boswell’s parading about London and the 1768 Stratford Jubilee as “Corsica Boswell,” Boswell’s reputation lives primarily because of his biography of Samuel Johnson.

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When Boswell came to London in 1762, Johnson’s name was already on his list of prospective biographical subjects, and the young man hoped that his fellow Scot Thomas Sheridan would effect an introduction. Unhappily for that prospect, Sheridan and Johnson had quarreled. The bookseller Tom Davies had tried without success to bring Boswell and Johnson together. Then, on the evening of May 16, 1763, a date sacred to all Johnsonians, Boswell was sitting in the back room of Davies’ shop when the bookseller, echoing Horatio’s line about the ghost of old Hamlet, called out, “Look, my Lord, it comes.”

The twenty-two-year-old Boswell’s first encounter with the fifty-three-year-old Johnson did not begin auspiciously. Knowing Johnson’s aversion to the Scots, Boswell asked Davies not to mention Boswell’s nationality. Davies promptly told Johnson that Boswell had come from Scotland. Boswell acknowledged his nativity but apologized: “I cannot help it.” Johnson acerbically replied, “That, Sir, I find, is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help,” alluding to the recent influx into England of Scottish place-seekers. Johnson next criticized David Garrick, and when Boswell interrupted to defend the great actor who had accompanied Johnson to London before Boswell had been born, Johnson replied, “Sir, I have known David Garrick longer than you have done: and I know no right you have to talk to me on the subject.” By the time Johnson left, Boswell was crushed, but Davies reassured him. “I can see he likes you very well.”

Davies was right. Although over the next twenty-one years Boswell and Johnson spent a total of only some four hundred days together, they corresponded frequently, and by 1772 Boswell had resolved to write Johnson’s life. By the following year, the two men were speaking openly about the project. In 1773, Johnson greatly advanced Boswell’s plans by joining his young friend for about one hundred days touring the west coast of Scotland and the Hebrides. An inveterate diarist, Boswell faithfully recorded Johnson’s actions and words on this Highland jaunt, as he invariably did whenever the two men were together. Boswell had hoped to publish an account of their travels; but Johnson preempted him with his own book on the jaunt, and Boswell’s friends urged him not to print his account while Johnson lived.

To fill in his knowledge of Johnson’s early life and to collect material for his future book, Boswell continually probed Johnson. “If, Sir, you were shut up in a castle, and a newborn child with you, what would you do?” Such questioning could provoke Johnson, who once accused Boswell of having only two topics, “yourself, and me,” adding, “I am sick of them both.” Undeterred, Boswell continued to ask questions and to put Johnson into unfamiliar situations to see how the latter would react. The tour of Scotland is the most extended example: How would a man who lived in the city and had no affection for Scotland fare north of the Tweed? Similarly, he orchestrated a meeting between the rakish political liberal John Wilkes and the moralistic conservative Johnson to see how the two would get on. The meeting proved congenial. It also provided one of the great set pieces in Boswell’s biography, as he knew it would.

By the time of Johnson’s death on December 13, 1784, Boswell had gathered volumes of information gleaned from Johnson and other sources, including some surreptitiously copied extracts from Johnson’s journals that Johnson apparently burned shortly before dying. Johnson had scarcely been interred in Westminster Abbey when Boswell received a letter from the publisher Charles Dilly asking for a four-hundred-page book on Johnson’s conversation, to be published early in 1785. John Nichols, editor of the Gentleman’s Magazine, also urged Boswell to make haste, saying that Boswell would earn ten times as much from his biography if it were the first in print.

Boswell refused to be hurried. On December 23, 1784, he wrote to Sir Joshua Reynolds, to whom he would dedicate the great biography, “I wish first to see many other lives of [Johnson], that I may both receive additional information and correct mistakes and misrepresentations.” He also wanted to gather more material from unpublished sources. Typical of the letters of inquiry he sent is one of February 15, 1785, to Mary Cobb, a Lichfield acquaintance of Johnson: “You will oblige me much, and will help me to oblige the world, if you take the trouble to write down and send me every anecdote concerning him, from his earliest years, and every one of his sayings that you recollect. The utmost minuteness will be desirable.”

While Boswell was not ready to publish a complete portrait of Johnson, his journal of the Scottish expedition would serve as a sketch. With the help of Edmond Malone, Boswell edited the relevant diaries, which appeared in late 1785 as The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides. The work exhibits Boswell’s method of letting his subject speak for himself, though Boswell did mitigate some of Johnson’s asperities. Johnson had called the Reverend Kenneth Macaulay “the most ignorant booby and grossest bastard.” Boswell changed the phrasing to a “coarse man.” Enough indiscretions remained to alienate various of Boswell’s former friends. Some readers felt that Boswell’s attention to detail was excessive. Soame Jenyns, whom Johnson had savaged in a review, complained that Boswell’s Tour and Hester Piozzi’s Anecdotes (1786) revealed how Johnson not only talked and wrote but also how he “coughed and spit.”

At the end of the Tour an announcement claimed that Boswell’s full biography was being prepared for the press. In fact, Boswell did not even begin sorting material until June, 1786, and his progress thereafter was sporadic. He could complete fifty-two pages in a week, but he could also write nothing for months at a time. Sisman shows that Boswell suffered legitimate distractions, such as his wife’s illness and death in 1788 and the demands of his Scottish estate, but he points out that Boswell’s unrealistic pursuit of a political plum, depression, and drinking slowed progress, too. With his friends’ prodding, Malone’s editing, and his own determination, he was at last able to bring forth The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. on May 16, 1791, the twenty-eighth anniversary of his meeting with Johnson.

Boswell had feared for its reception. Half a dozen other biographies had already appeared. Had the public tired of the subject? Would anyone buy an expensive two-volume set running to nearly one thousand pages? Would critics and readers object to the realistic portrait he had painted? Boswell had been determined to present Johnson warts and all. When bluestocking Hannah More had asked him not to show Johnson’s rougher side, Boswell replied that “he would not cut off [Johnson’s] claws, nor make a tiger a cat, to please anybody.” As Boswell declared in the biography, “I profess to write, not his panegyric, but his Life; which, great and good as he was, must not be supposed to be entirely perfect.” On April 6, 1791, he expressed his fears to his oldest friend, William Temple. “I am at present in such bad spirits, that I have every fear concerning [the book]—that I may get no profit, nay, may lose—that the public may be disappointed and think that I have done it poorly—that I may make many enemies, and even have quarrels. Yet perhaps the very reverse of all this may happen.”

His fears proved unfounded. On May 20, 1785, King George III had told Boswell, “There will be many foolish lives first. Do you make the best.” Readers and critics alike agreed that Boswell had obeyed his sovereign’s command. The public devoured the work: nearly every one of the 1,750 copies of the first edition sold, yielding Boswell a profit of £1,555 18 shillings 2 pence. The second edition (1793) earned him nearly £1,000. The musician Charles Burney had once contemplated writing his own life of Johnson. After reading Boswell’s, Burney wrote that in the imaginary university that the Literary Club had formed and to which both Burney and Boswell belonged, Boswell should hold the chair of biography. Burney compared Boswell’s Life of Johnson to Xenophon’s memoirs of the life of Socrates. Vicesimus Knox had objected to the Tour but harbored no such reservations about the Life. The nineteenth century historian Thomas Babington Macaulay, whose great-uncle Johnson had criticized, summarized the feelings of generations of readers when he declared, “Boswell is the first of biographers. He has no second. He has outdistanced his competitors so decidedly that it is not worth while to place them.”

As Sisman notes, Boswell’s Johnson differs in some respects from the historical figure. Though he knew that Johnson had contemplated a second marriage shortly after his first wife, Tetty, died, Boswell suppressed that information, as he did other material about Johnson’s amorous propensities that Boswell labeled “Tacenda.” Boswell’s Johnson seems always middle-aged: Only 20 percent of the Life deals with the period before 1763. Though Johnson was renowned as a talker, Boswell recreated and reshaped some of the speeches he attributed to his subject. Johnson is always “Doctor,” a title he received only in 1775. Perhaps because of his own insecurities, Boswell never acknowledged that Johnson might have yielded to his inner demons.

Yet whatever its limitations, Boswell’s biography Johnsonized the land, as Boswell claimed in the advertisement to the second edition. Because of the Life, Johnson is the best known and best loved eighteenth century British literary figure, rivaled only by his biographer. The tragedy of Boswell’s success was that with the completion of his great task, his occupation was gone. Two years after the second edition appeared, Boswell died, on May 19, 1795. He lies buried at his estate of Auchinleck, but his monument stands on shelves around the world. What Shakespeare said of his sonnets applies as well to Boswell’s Life: “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,/ So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.”

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 97 (July, 2001): 1971.

Library Journal 126 (June 15, 2001): 82.

New Criterion 19 (March, 2001): 61.

The New York Times Book Review 106 (August 19, 2001): 12.

Publishers Weekly 248 (June 11, 2001): 70

The Times Literary Supplement, November 3, 2000, p. 36.

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