28 April 2011

Lost without James Boswell

James Boswell at the tender age of twenty-five*.  It is not known widely that Boswell was a great Owl-Fancier, and, for many years, kept a parliament of them on the roof of his house in Covent Garden, London.

Reader(s), in past posts, I have made no secret of my great enthusiasm, daresay eighteenth-century-style Mania, for great English writer and wit-factory Dr. Samuel Johnson, author of the first acclaimed Dictionary in our language. (See my previous entry on the Quotable Doctor.) But, in my ungentlemanly submission to the Passions, I haven't given Johnson's biographer and close personal friend James Boswell his proper due.

Some critics, specifically the Victorian-era historian and critic (and fellow Scottish blowhard) Thomas Babington Macaulay, have attacked Boswell as, "Servile and impertinent, shallow and pedantic, a bigot and a sot, bloated with family pride, and eternally blustering about the dignity of a born gentleman, yet stooping to be a talebearer."  Furthermore, he was an "eavesdropper, a common butt [of jokes] in the taverns of London" who was "curious to know everybody who was talked about...vain of the most childish honors."  What others "would have hidden was matter of gay and clamorous exultation" to a man with such a "weak and diseased mind." 

The Ghost of Samuel Johnson appears to graphomaniacal biographer James Boswell, his arm extended in foreboding perpetual greeting to his frightened-looking "Retailer of Phrases."

Kind words from the 1st Baron Macaulay! Few, however, have such a low opinion of Boswell these days, and Macaulay's Lays of Ancient Rome goes unread**, while the Life of Johnson endures as a classic of English literature.  And Boswell, despite his predilection for pomposity and prostitutes, couldn't have been as bad as all that.  

If nothing else, I admire not only the young man's ability to will into being, through sheer doggedness, a friendship with the much older and much more famous Dr. Johnson, but stand in awe of the stamina and single-mindedness necessary to crank out over a thousand pages of reminiscence and anecdote on said acquaintance. Truly, with Mr. Boswell, we have a remarkable character, exemplary of the eighteenth-century self-fashioning man-about-town, not to mention one capable of great Epicureanism and womanizing!

The dearly-departed and armless Dr. Johnson (literally) looks down upon his biographers, his pseudo-mistress Hester Thrale, left; tricorn'd John Courtenay, center; and squinting "Bozzy" (Johnson's actual nickname for him), right.  (Thomas Cornell, 1790s)

Boswell was born in 1740 in Edinburgh, Scotland. Despite growing up among a race of incorrigible oat-eaters and English-corrupting Lairds, Boswell  made it to the metropolis of London by 1763. There, poised to while away his time in libertine debauchery, the twenty-two year-old had a chance meeting with fifty-four year-old Samuel Johnson at a bookshop that set him on the path to star wagon-hitching and literary immortality.***

During their first encounter, Johnson, upon learning of Boswell's origins, chastised him, to which Boswell responded, "I do indeed come from Scotland, but I cannot help it," to which the Bard of Lichfield replied, "That, Sir, I find, is what a great many of your Countrymen cannot help!"  

A gathering of "The Club."  Johnson is seated and alert, ladeling out more rum punch for his fellows (and strangely puffing on a pipe).  The wig-less man to the left of Johnson, with a glass raised and patting him on the head, is the hack writer Goldsmith, and the man dozed off with a horn in his hand is the portraitist Reynolds.  As usual, Boswell, lies, fallen out of his chair, in a stupor of his own creation, in the foreground.  (Engraving by William Hogarth, 1765)

The two eventually became bosom friends, as Boswell insinuated himself into Johnson's inner circle of literary and artistic luminaries (The Club), despite the occasional aside from Sir Joshua Reynolds or Oliver "Stoops to Conquer" Goldsmith to the effect of, "Who the DEVIL is that young Scotch Blighter with the lousy [lice-infest'd] Periwig?" 

In 1773, the pair road-tripped, after much nagging by Boswell, to the exotic wilds of the Scottish Hebrides Islands. Boswell memorialized this moor and thistle-saturated holiday in his book A Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D, published in 1785.****  The memoir acted as (what the hive-mind of Wikipedia calls) a "teaser" for Boswell's forthcoming much longer treatment of Johnson's life.  

The first edition of Life of Johnson, printed "for Charles Dilly, in the Poultry" (not this).    

Boswell's biography was by no means the first published after Johnson's death -- seemingly everyone from his erstwhile and harshly-named confidant Hester Thrale to his beloved black Jamaican manservant and heir Francis Barber felt compelled to scribble down their impressions to make a guinea.  Boswell, though fond of a shilling as much as any man, began the great labor of composing his biography soon after Johnson's death but did not finish it until six years later. And what a "damn'd thick square book" it was, with the current Penguin Classics edition coming in north of 1,400 pages.  

Truth be told, Boswell's biography isn't much like most of its modern counterparts.  Much of the content consists of entire quoted letters and extensive entries from Boswell's diaries, stitched together by contextual narrative.  To be fair, Boswell also includes lengthy excerpts from Virgil and Horace from his Latin school books, most of the contents of his address book, and recipes for Rum Punch and Wassail. Yet, out of this muddle, Boswell succeeds in creating a variegated and inclusive portrait of not only Johnson, but of eighteenth-century literary culture. 

So what is the legacy of this Man of Letters, producer of perhaps the greatest biographical portrait existing in English?  Bigot and sot, or true friend and chronicler?*****  Pick up the weighty tome yourself, and decide for yourself!  Like the King James Bible, or the Adult Classifieds, it makes great random reading.  

Well, I retire to my drawing room anon, to read a little of the Life myself. I will aspire to imitate dear Boswell's work in form, if not length, in future posts.  Until next time, Courteous Readers, the Cabinet is clos'd.  


* Before stage four syphilis had set in.

** The film adaptation, though, proves to be enduringly popular at adult video stores.  

*** Don't worry, though.  Boswell still had ample opportunity for debauched vice, and capitalized upon it most splendidly!

**** Johnson had published his own much more generic account of the Scottish sojourn, A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (with some native Guy nam'd Boswell) eight years earlier, in 1775.  

***** Boy, they really need footnotes on Blogger.  Also, I recently discovered that Johnson and Boswell might have moonlighted as something akin to eighteenth-century amateur detectives (thief-takers, perhaps?), courtesy of Lilian De La Torre's engaging series of narrative biographies.  

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