Though Boswell began the biography in 1786, shortly after the death of Johnson, he had been planning it ever since their famous meeting on May 16, 1763. He had therefore carefully recorded in his diaries and memory everything related to his subject, and he had acted as prompter and stage manager to draw Johnson out. Some of the most memorable episodes in the book, such as the Tory Johnson’s meeting with the Whiggish John Wilkes, resulted from Boswell’s manipulation.
To create what he called his “Flemish portrait” of Johnson, Boswell let his subject speak for himself through his letters and conversation, thus drawing on the techniques of drama and the epistolary novel to enliven his work.
Boswell does not gloss over Johnson’s flaws. As he told Hannah Moore, “He would not cut off [Johnson’s] claws, nor make a tiger a cat, to please anybody.” Here are Johnson’s prejudices, his stubbornness, and his frequent intellectual bullying.
Here, too, though, are Johnson’s compassion for those less fortunate, his conviviality (led him to create a number of literary clubs), his common sense, and his brilliance.
Because Johnson knew all the important writers of the period, his biography also serves as a literary history of late 18th century England.
Johnson’s writings would have earned for him a high place in English literature even if he and Boswell had never met. Without their friendship, though, Johnson’s...
(The entire section is 477 words.)