Dogsticks logo  
    Home        Book Reviews        Music        Photos        Kayaking Videos        Videos with Music        oBlog        Links        Contact    

Book Reviews - Review 416

Choose a category for a list of reviews. Notes | Books I Couldn't Finish | Random Review

Latest | Fiction | Science | Biography / Memoir | History | Music | Miscellaneous | All

Search Reviews: Whole Words Author/Title Only Include Unfinished Books

James Boswell

The Life of Samuel Johnson

Category: Biography | Published: 1791 | Review Added: 23-11-2022

Rating: 4 - A top read

In Britain at the end of the Eighteenth Century, several literary forms were approaching their maturity. One of them was the novel; another was biography. James Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson counts among the first modern classics of the genre, combining diligent research, emphasis on its subject's character, and an analytical, long-sighted perspective.

Boswell befriended Johnson in 1763 on a visit to London from Edinburgh. Boswell was twenty-two years old; Johnson was fifty-three, and had most of his major achievements, including his dictionary, behind him. In the years of their acquaintance, Johnson enjoyed the status of an established man of letters, living off a comfortable pension granted by King George III, working at his own pace, and socialising in the roles of guest, (less often) host, and co-founder of the Literary Club that met at various taverns across London.

The most celebrated achievement of the Life is the the first-hand accounts of Dr. Johnson's conversation on these occasions, which Boswell recorded verbatim in a journal. They portray aspects of the writer's personality that would have otherwise been lost to posterity. For all the brilliance of his essays and the monumental achievement of his dictionary, the particular humour and wit of his conversation are set down nowhere else.

It is difficult to select utterances for inclusion in a review, when there are so many to choose from: Johnson never spoke unless he had something thought-provoking to say. He could be morally serious, witty, or whimsical - for samples of his eloquence, peruse any English dictionary of quotations. A good half of them will be taken from Boswell's book.

Less appealingly, Johnson sometimes played the intellectual bully, misrepresenting his opponents' arguments, and using his mental agility to manipulate lines of attack faster than they could formulate defences:

He could, when he chose it, be the greatest sophist that ever wielded a weapon in the schools of declamation; but he indulged this only in conversation; for he owned he sometimes talked for victory; he was too conscientious to make errour permanent and pernicious, by deliberately writing it.

When cornered, Johnson would resort to ridicule, closing discussions unilaterally with the declaration that his opponents' statements were not worth refuting. "There is no arguing with Johnson, " said Oliver Goldsmith: "for if his pistol misses fire, he knocks you down with the butt end of it."

The last third of the book is less vivid. As Boswell's professional, familial and proprietorial responsibilities in Scotland demanded more of his energy, he spent less time in London, and so Johnson's later years are represented to a large extent by letters - to friends and people of influence, often supplicating support for deserving cases. They fill out the narrative adequately, but they are no substitute for the lively first-hand accounts that make up the middle of the book.

Boswell argues that personal acquaintance with the subject is an invaluable asset in a biographer. This is true; but it also carries with it limitations. Boswell wrote with a debt to Johnson's mentorship and memory, which is sometimes at the expense of objectivity. While Johnson undoubtedly had more virtues than most who reach the pinnacle of fame, Boswell's panegyrics on his friend's good qualities are sometimes irritatingly fulsome.

Boswell acknowledges that in his private life, Johnson did not always live up to the high moral standards that he espoused in his writings, notwithstanding that they were sincerely kept. Johnson was committed to the Protestant faith, and feared damnation in the afterlife; he was also by nature compassionate, considerate and dutiful. Nonetheless, Boswell hints that there were episodes of dissolution in his youth that extended to "drinks" with prostitutes. He makes no reference to affairs or romances, though the comment that "his amorous inclinations were uncommonly strong and impetuous" suggests that there is a thread to Johnson's story, how significant we cannot know, that will never be revealed. Boswell defends Johnson partly to dispel the notion that he was a sanctimonious prig:

I have exhibited this circumstance as a shade in so great a character, both from my sacred love of truth, and to shew that he was not so weakly scrupulous as he has been represented by those who imagine that the sins, of which a deep sense was upon his mind, were merely such venial little trifles as pouring milk into his tea on Good-Friday.

Later biographers have surmised that Johnson had a sado-masochistic relationship with Hester Thrale, in whose husband's house he often stayed. (Johnson allegedly adopted, characteristically, the submissive role.) Boswell can hint at nothing on this subject, but it was widely known that Johnson and Mrs. Thrale - whose marriage was not happy - were on very close terms.

Other mysteries remain due to simple omission, perhaps because Boswell did not consider them important to his central purpose. We learn nothing of the character of Johnson's wife, who died before Boswell entered the scene. Johnson appears to have been severely affected by her death, and to have cherished her memory; but on her as an individual, and on the marriage, Boswell is silent. Nor does he provide character sketches of Johnson's West Indian servant Francis Barber, or of the various other people who, at one time or another, lived under Johnson's roof, except for Miss Williams, a querulous blind woman who was his permanent lodger.

That said, the Life, at over 1200 pages, is long enough as it is, and was clearly conceived, essentially, as a record of Johnson's conversation. The advantage of its being written by a friend of Johnson is the intimacy of the portrayal - the reader is flattered into feeling Johnson their own friend through Boswell (who includes keen descriptions of Johnson's imposing physical frame and his odd mannerisms). It has weaknesses of structure, and gaps in narrative; but it is an entertaining and edifying work that deserves its reputation. Not least, Boswell has a lively prose style that is often infused with a wry, mischievous sense of humour. Though a less principled man than Johnson, Boswell admired the example that he set. That is testament to both Boswell's generosity of spirit, and Johnson's charisma.

[Return to top]

(c) Copyright 2002-2022