The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.

by James Boswell

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James Boswell’s life of Samuel Johnson has often been considered the greatest biography produced in the English language, and it has probably had more readers than any other biography written in English. Among the works published during Boswell’s lifetime, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. stood out as the greatest for almost a century and a half. A new estimate of Boswell’s work has had to be taken since 1950, however, for much of Boswell’s writing was lost in manuscript until the 1920’s. During the period between 1927 and 1949, Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Heyward Isham, a collector, brought together the Boswell papers that had been stored at Malahide Castle, near Dublin, Ireland, and the Forbes collection, which had accidentally passed into the hands of one of Boswell’s executors and descended to the latter’s heirs. Some of the papers were published by Isham, who sold the entire collection to Yale University in 1949 and 1950. The university began to publish volumes of the papers under the general title of The Yale Editions of the Private Papers of James Boswell. Through such collections of his writings as Boswell’s London Journal, 1762-1763 (1950), Boswell in Holland, 1763-1764 (1952), and Boswell on the Grand Tour: Germany and Switzerland, 1764 (1953), Boswell emerged as a splendid writer of journals. This fact, however, does not detract from his stature as the author of the biography of Johnson, nor will these more recently published works replace the biography as the most important of Boswell’s books, although critical opinion may be modified to grant Boswell greater stature in literature than he once had.

Readers now know that The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. is based on materials that Boswell had recorded in the copious journals he kept during the greater part of his adult life. This is not to say, however, that the biography is merely a transcription of materials from those journals. From present knowledge of the papers it can be seen that Boswell was an artist in biography, choosing carefully what suited his needs and goals. Even those who feel that Boswell intrudes too much into the biography must now recognize that Boswell took some pains to omit much material about Johnson in which Boswell figured. Those who feel that Boswell intrudes too much into the work possibly overlook the fact that during Johnson’s life, Boswell was Johnson’s friend and spent from four hundred to five hundred days with his subject, thus becoming himself a part of Johnson’s life and the Johnsonian environment.

Boswell’s method was to record information about Johnson in his journals. Sometimes the material was recorded daily, but on occasion Boswell fell behind and had to rely on his memory—a phenomenal one—recalling events that had transpired in periods of four or five days and evenings. It is notable, too, that Boswell was careful to prompt Johnson into conversation, often asking what seem to present-day readers to be obvious or absurd questions in order to goad Johnson into making remarks worthy of record. One such question noted by critics is that in which Boswell asked Johnson what he would do if given the solitary care of a small infant; the question, seemingly absurd, led Johnson to reply in such fashion as to comment on the rearing and education of children and to set forth a philosophy of education. The more readers learn about Boswell and his work, the more they understand that he was not a mere transcriber, as critical legend held for some time; rather, he was a skillful writer who shaped his materials with great care. The casual reader may even...

(This entire section contains 1316 words.)

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miss some of the more obvious points of artistry in his work, such as notations on how Johnson looked and spoke when delivering comments and opinions.

Johnson was a man of many achievements. He single-handedly brought forth the first recognized dictionary of the English language. He also made himself famous as a writer by means of his writings for The Rambler (1750-1752), his drama Irene: A Tragedy (pr. 1749), his poetry, and his essays. As a moralist Johnson also won fame as the author of the didactic novel Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia: A Tale by S. Johnson (1759). As a critic he was famous for his ten-volume work Prefaces, Biographical and Critical, to the Works of the English Poets (1779-1781; also known as The Lives of the Poets) and his preface to an edition of William Shakespeare’s plays. People great and small admired Johnson, including many of the famous and remarkable Englishmen of his time, men such as David Hume, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Oliver Goldsmith, and David Garrick. In addition, Johnson was a picturesque, at times even ludicrous, figure, and this fact Boswell did not attempt to hide, giving himself the task of writing “not his panegyrick, which must be all praise, but his Life; which great and good as he was, must not be supposed to be perfect.”

In further defense of his way of writing biography, Boswell states near the beginning of the biography: I am fully aware of the objections which may be made to the minuteness on some occasions of my detail of Johnson’s conversation, and how happily it is adapted for the petty exercise of ridicule by men of superficial understanding, and ludicrous fancy; but I remain firm and confident in my opinion, that minute particulars are frequently characteristick, and always amusing, when they relate to a distinguished man. I am therefore exceedingly unwilling that anything, however slight, which my illustrious friend thought it worth his while to express, with any degree of point, should perish.

Boswell realized, as readers know from what he said and wrote, that the function and art of biography is to focus on the subject and keep that person constantly before the reader. This Boswell does in his biography of Johnson. To do so he carefully gathered together more than what he knew firsthand of the man who was his friend and subject. He exercised diligence and care in collecting letters written by Johnson, including the text of his famous letter to Lord Chesterfield. He collected, too, letters written about Johnson, as well as anecdotes about his subject’s life, trying at the same time to establish the authenticity of the reports he had of Johnson. These materials are presented in the biography in chronological order. If the results have some defects, the defects are more or less forgivable in view of their sparseness. Seldom did Boswell record facts that later biographers needed to correct.

The biography’s account of Johnson’s life before he met Boswell is relatively short. This fact may be excused on the ground that Boswell used only the information about Johnson’s early life that he could gather and trust. Naturally, he had a much larger fund of materials from the period during which he knew Johnson personally. Some critics have noted Boswell’s reluctance to interpret. Of this reluctance, it must be said that interpretation was not Boswell’s way. On occasion in the biography he generalizes on Johnson perceptively, but his preference, as he carefully states, is to present particulars rather than generalizations. The result is that Johnson is “alive” in The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. as few biographical subjects are, with his personality and character borne out by his own spoken and written words. On occasion the reader may feel that Johnson’s written words, usually letters, have been inserted where they fit none too well, seeming to interfere with the flow of the book. They are nevertheless a part of the scheme Boswell worked out and put together.

Samuel Johnson has been the subject of many biographies; five, for example, appeared after Johnson’s death and before Boswell’s work. Others have been written since, but none has ever equaled Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.

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