The Life of Samuel Johnson LL.D., by James Boswell

INTRODUCTION

Phillips Brooks once told the boys at Exeter that in reading biography three men meet one another in close intimacy — the subject of the biography, the author, and the reader. Of the three the most interesting is, of course, the man about whom the book is written. The most privileged is the reader, who is thus allowed to live familiarly with an eminent man. Least regarded of the three is the author. It is his part to introduce the others, and to develop between them an acquaintance, perhaps a friendship, while he, though ever busy and solicitous, withdraws into the background.

Some think that Boswell, in his Life of Johnson, did not sufficiently realize his duty of self-effacement. He is too much in evidence, too bustling, too anxious that his own opinion, though comparatively unimportant, should get a hearing. In general, Boswell’s faults are easily noticed, and have been too much talked about. He was morbid, restless, self-conscious, vain, insinuating; and, poor fellow, he died a drunkard. But the essential Boswell, the skilful and devoted artist, is almost unrecognized. As the creator of the Life of Johnson he is almost as much effaced as is Homer in the Odyssey. He is indeed so closely concealed that the reader suspects no art at all. Boswell’s performance looks easy enough — merely the more or less coherent stringing together of a mass of memoranda. Nevertheless it was rare and difficult, as is the highest achievement in art. Boswell is primarily the artist, and he has created one of the great masterpieces of the world.1 He created nothing else, though his head was continually filling itself with literary schemes that came to nought. But into his Life of Johnson he poured all his artistic energies, as Milton poured his into Paradise Lost, and Vergil his into the Aneid.

1 Here I include his Journal of a Tour of the Hebrides as essentially a part of the Life. The Journal of a Tour in Corsica is but a propaedeutic study.

First, Boswell had the industry and the devotion to his task of an artist. Twenty years and more he labored in collecting his material. He speaks frankly of his methods. He recorded the talk of Johnson and his associates partly by a rough shorthand of his own, partly by an exceptional memory, which he carefully trained for this very purpose. ‘O for shorthand to take this down!’ said he to Mrs. Thrale as they listened to Johnson; and she replied: ‘You’ll carry it all in your head; a long head is as good as shorthand.’ Miss Hannah More recalls a gay meeting at the Garricks’, in Johnson’s absence, when Boswell was bold enough to match his skill with no other than Garrick himself in an imitation of Johnson. Though Garrick was more successful in his Johnsonian recitation of poetry, Boswell won in reproducing his familiar conversation. He lost no time in perfecting his notes both mental and stenographic, and sat up many a night followed by a day of headache, to write them in final form, that none of the freshness and glow might fade. The sheer labor of this process, not to mention the difficulty, can be measured only by one who attempts a similar feat. Let him try to report the best conversation of a lively evening, following its course, preserving its point, differentiating sharply the traits of the participants, keeping the style, idiom, and exact words of each. Let him reject all parts of it, however diverting, of which the charm and force will evaporate with the occasion, and retain only that which will be as amusing, significant, and lively as ever at the end of one hundred, or, for all that we can see, one thousand years. He will then, in some measure, realize the difficulty of Boswell’s performance. When his work appeared Boswell himself said: ‘The stretch of mind and prompt assiduity by which so many conversations are preserved, I myself, at some distance of time, contemplate with wonder.’

He was indefatigable in hunting up and consulting all who had known parts or aspects of Johnson’s life which to him were inaccessible. He mentions all told more than fifty names of men and women whom he consulted for information, to which number many others should be added of those who gave him nothing that he could use. ‘I have sometimes been obliged to run half over London, in order to fix a date correctly.’ He agonized over his work with the true devotion of an artist: ‘You cannot imagine,’ he says, ‘what labor, what perplexity, what vexation I have endured in arranging a prodigious multiplicity of materials, in supplying omissions, in searching for papers buried in different masses, and all this besides the exertion of composing and polishing.’ He despairs of making his picture vivid or full enough, and of ever realizing his preconception of his masterpiece.

Boswell’s devotion to his work appears in even more extraordinary ways. Throughout he repeatedly offers himself as a victim to illustrate his great friend’s wit, ill-humor, wisdom, affection, or goodness. He never spares himself, except now and then to assume a somewhat diaphanous anonymity. Without regard for his own dignity, he exhibits himself as humiliated, or drunken, or hypochondriac, or inquisitive, or resorting to petty subterfuge — anything for the accomplishment of his one main purpose. ‘Nay, Sir,’ said Johnson, ‘it was not the wine that made your head ache, but the sense that I put into it.’ ‘What, Sir,’ asks the hapless Boswell, ‘will sense make the head ache?’ ‘Yes, Sir, when it is not used to it.’

Boswell is also the artist in his regard for truth. In him it was a passion. Again and again he insists upon his authenticity. He developed an infallible gust and unerring relish of what was genuinely Johnsonian in speech, writing, or action; and his own account leads to the inference that he discarded, as worthless, masses of diverting material which would have tempted a less scrupulous writer beyond resistance. ‘I observed to him,’ said Boswell, ‘that there were very few of his friends so accurate as that I could venture to put down in writing what they told me as his sayings.’ The faithfulness of his portrait, even to the minutest details, is his unremitting care, and he subjects all contributed material to the sternest criticism.

Industry and love of truth alone will not make the artist. With only these Boswell might have been merely a tireless transcriber. But he had besides a keen sense of artistic values. This appears partly in the unity of his vast work. Though it was years in the making, though the details that demanded his attention were countless, yet they all centre consistently in one figure, and are so focused upon it, that one can hardly open the book at random to a line which has not its direct bearing upon the one subject of the work. Nor is the unity of the book that of an undeviating narrative in chronological order of one man’s life; it grows rather out of a single dominating personality exhibited in all the vicissitudes of a manifold career. Boswell often speaks of his work as a painting, a portrait, and of single incidents as pictures or scenes in a drama. His eye is keen for contrasts, for picturesque moments, for dramatic action. While it is always the same Johnson whom he makes the central figure, he studies to shift the background, the interlocutors, the light and shade, in search of new revelations and effects. He presents a succession of many scenes, exquisitely wrought, of Johnson amid widely various settings of Eighteenth-Century England. And subject and setting are so closely allied that each borrows charm and emphasis from the other. Let the devoted reader of Boswell ask himself what glamor would fade from the church of St. Clement Danes, from the Mitre, from Fleet Street, the Oxford coach, and Lichfield, if the burly figure were withdrawn from them; or what charm and illumination, of the man himself would have been lost apart from these settings. It is the unseen hand of the artist Boswell that has wrought them inseparably into this reciprocal effect.

The single scenes and pictures which Boswell has given us will all of them bear close scrutiny for their precision, their economy of means, their lifelikeness, their artistic effect. None was wrought more beautifully, nor more ardently, than that of Johnson’s interview with the King. First we see the plain massive figure of the scholar amid the elegant comfort of Buckingham House. He is intent on his book before the fire. Then the approach of the King, lighted on his way by Mr. Barnard with candles caught from a table; their entrance by a private door, with Johnson’s unconscious absorption, his sudden surprise, his starting up, his dignity, the King’s ease with him, their conversation, in which the King courteously draws from Johnson knowledge of that in which Johnson is expert, Johnson’s manly bearing and voice throughout — all is set forth with the unadorned vividness and permanent effect which seem artless enough, but which are characteristic of only the greatest art.

Boswell’s Life of Johnson is further a masterpiece of art in that it exerts the vigorous energy of a masterpiece, an abundance of what, for want of a better word, we call personality. It is Boswell’s confessed endeavor to add this quality to the others, because he perceived that it was an essential quality of Johnson himself, and he more than once laments his inability to transmit the full force and vitality of his original. Besides artistic perception and skill it required in him admiration and enthusiasm to seize this characteristic and impart it to his work. His admiration he confesses unashamed: ‘I said I worshipped him . . . I cannot help worshipping him, he is so much superior to other men.’ He studied his subject intensely. ‘During all the course of my long intimacy with him, my respectful attention never abated.’ Upon such intensity and such ardor and enthusiasm depend the energy and animation of his portrait.

But it exhibits other personal qualities than these, which, if less often remarked, are at any rate unconsciously enjoyed. Boswell had great social charm. His friends are agreed upon his liveliness and good nature. Johnson called him ‘clubbable,’ ‘the best traveling companion in the world,’ ‘one Scotchman who is cheerful,’ ‘a man whom everybody likes,’ ‘a man who I believe never left a house without leaving a wish for his return.’ His vivacity, his love of fun, his passion for good company and friendship, his sympathy, his amiability, which made him acceptable everywhere, have mingled throughout with his own handiwork, and cause it to radiate a kind of genial warmth. This geniality it may be which has attracted so many readers to the book. They find themselves in good company, in a comfortable, pleasant place, agreeably stimulated with wit and fun, and cheered with friendliness. They are loth to leave it, and would ever enter it again. This rare charm the book owes in large measure to its creator.

The alliance of author with subject in Boswell’s Johnson is one of the happiest and most sympathetic the world has known. So close is it that one cannot easily discern what great qualities the work owes to each. While it surely derives more of its excellence than is commonly remarked from the art of Boswell, its greatness after all is ultimately that of its subject. The noble qualities of Johnson have been well discerned by Carlyle, and his obvious peculiarities and prejudices somewhat magnified and distorted in Macaulay’s brilliant refractions. One quality only shall I dwell upon, though that may be the sum of all the rest. Johnson had a supreme capacity for human relationship. In him this capacity amounted to genius.

In all respects he was of great stature. His contemporaries called him a colossus, the literary Goliath, the Giant, the great Cham of literature, a tremendous companion. His frame was majestic; he strode when he walked, and his physical strength and courage were heroic. His mode of speaking was ‘very impressive,’ his utterance ‘deliberate and strong.’ His conversation was compared to ‘an antique statue, where every vein and muscle is distinct and bold.’ From boyhood throughout his life his companions naturally deferred to him, and he dominated them without effort. But what overcame the harshness of this autocracy, and made it reasonable, was the largeness of a nature that loved men and was ever hungry for knowledge of them. ‘Sir,’ said he, ‘I look upon every day lost in which I do not make a new acquaintance.’ And again: ‘Why, Sir, I am a man of the world. I live in the world, and I take, in some degree, the color of the world as it moves along.’ Thus he was a part of all that he met, a central figure in his time, with whose opinion one must reckon in considering any important matter of his day.

His love of London is but a part of his hunger for men. ‘The happiness of London is not to be conceived but by those who have been in it.’ ‘Why, Sir, you find no man at all intellectual who is willing to leave London: No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.’ As he loved London, so he loved a tavern for its sociability. ‘Sir, there is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern.’ ‘A tavern chair is the throne of human felicity.’

Personal words are often upon his lips, such as ‘love’ and ‘hate,’ and vast is the number, range, and variety of people who at one time or another had been in some degree personally related with him, from Bet Flint and his black servant Francis, to the adored Duchess of Devonshire and the King himself. To no one who passed a word with him was he personally indifferent. Even fools received his personal attention. Said one: ‘But I don’t understand you, Sir.’ ‘Sir, I have found you an argument. I am not obliged to find you an understanding.’ ‘Sir, you are irascible,’ said Boswell; ‘you have no patience with folly or absurdity.’

But it is in Johnson’s capacity for friendship that his greatness is specially revealed. ‘Keep your friendships in good repair.’ As the old friends disappeared, new ones came to him. For Johnson seems never to have sought out friends. He was not a common ‘mixer.’ He stooped to no devices for the sake of popularity. He pours only scorn upon the lack of mind and conviction which is necessary to him who is everybody’s friend.

His friendships included all classes and all ages. He was a great favorite with children, and knew how to meet them, from little four-months-old Veronica Boswell to his godchild Jane Langton. ‘Sir,’ said he, ‘I love the acquaintance of young people, . . . young men have more virtue than old men; they have more generous sentiments in every respect.’ At sixty-eight he said: ‘I value myself upon this, that there is nothing of the old man in my conversation.’ Upon women of all classes and ages he exerts without trying a charm the consciousness of which would have turned any head less constant than his own, and with their fulsome adoration he was pleased none the less for perceiving its real value.

But the most important of his friendships developed between him and such men of genius as Boswell, David Garrick, Oliver Goldsmith, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and Edmund Burke. Johnson’s genius left no fit testimony of itself from his own hand. With all the greatness of his mind he had no talent in sufficient measure by which fully to express himself. He had no ear for music and no eye for painting, and the finest qualities in the creations of Goldsmith were lost upon him. But his genius found its talents in others, and through the talents of his personal friends expressed itself as it were by proxy. They rubbed their minds upon his, and he set in motion for them ideas which they might use. But the intelligence of genius is profounder and more personal than mere ideas. It has within it something energic, expansive, propulsive from mind to mind, perennial, yet steady and controlled; and it was with such force that Johnson’s almost superhuman personality inspired the art of his friends. Of this they were in some degree aware. Reynolds confessed that Johnson formed his mind, and ‘brushed from it a great deal of rubbish.’ Gibbon called Johnson ‘Reynolds’ oracle.’ In one of his Discourses Sir Joshua, mindful no doubt of his own experience, recommends that young artists seek the companionship of such a man merely as a tonic to their art. Boswell often testifies to the stimulating effect of Johnson’s presence. Once he speaks of ‘an animating blaze of eloquence, which roused every intellectual power in me to the highest pitch’; and again of the ‘full glow’ of Johnson’s conversation, in which he felt himself ‘elevated as if brought into another state of being.’ He says that all members of Johnson’s ‘school’ ‘are distinguished for a love of truth and accuracy which they would not have possessed in the same degree if they had not been acquainted with Johnson.’ He quotes Johnson at length and repeatedly as the author of his own large conception of biography. He was Goldsmith’s ‘great master,’ Garrick feared his criticism, and one cannot but recognize the power of Johnson’s personality in the increasing intelligence and consistency of Garrick’s interpretations, in the growing vigor and firmness of Goldsmith’s stroke, in the charm, finality, and exuberant life of Sir Joshua’s portraits; and above all in the skill, truth, brilliance, and lifelike spontaneity of Boswell’s art. It is in such works as these that we shall find the real Johnson, and through them that he will exert the force of his personality upon us.

Biography is the literature of realized personality, of life as it has been lived, of actual achievements or shortcomings, of success or failure; it is not imaginary and embellished, not what might be or might have been, not reduced to prescribed or artificial forms, but it is the unvarnished story of that which was delightful, disappointing, possible, or impossible, in a life spent in this world.

In this sense it is peculiarly the literature of truth and authenticity. Elements of imagination and speculation must enter into all other forms of literature, and as purely creative forms they may rank superior to biography; but in each case it will be found that their authenticity, their right to our attention and credence, ultimately rests upon the biographical element which is basic in them, that is, upon what they have derived by observation and experience from a human life seriously lived. Biography contains this element in its purity. For this reason it is more authentic than other kinds of literature, and more relevant. The thing that most concerns me, the individual, whether I will or no, is the management of myself in this world. The fundamental and essential conditions of life are the same in any age, however the adventitious circumstances may change. The beginning and the end are the same, the average length the same, the problems and the prize the same. How, then, have others managed, both those who failed and those who succeeded, or those, in far greatest number, who did both? Let me know their ambitions, their odds, their handicaps, obstacles, weaknesses, and struggles, how they finally fared, and what they had to say about it. Let me know a great variety of such instances that I may mark their disagreements, but more especially their agreement about it. How did they play the game? How did they fight the fight that I am to fight, and how in any case did they lose or win? To these questions biography gives the direct answer. Such is its importance over other literature. For such reasons, doubtless, Johnson ‘loved’ it most. For such reasons the book which has been most cherished and revered for well-nigh two thousand years is a biography.

Biography, then, is the chief text-book in the art of living, and preeminent in its kind is the Life of Johnson. Here is the instance of a man who was born into a life stripped of all ornament and artificiality. His equipment in mind and stature was Olympian, but the odds against him were proportionate to his powers. Without fear or complaint, without boast or noise, he fairly joined issue with the world and overcame it. He scorned circumstance, and laid bare the unvarying realities of the contest. He was ever the sworn enemy of speciousness, of nonsense, of idle and insincere speculation, of the mind that does not take seriously the duty of making itself up, of neglect in the gravest consideration of life. He insisted upon the rights and dignity of the individual man, and at the same time upon the vital necessity to him of reverence and submission, and no man ever more beautifully illustrated their interdependence, and their exquisite combination in a noble nature.

Boswell’s Johnson is consistently and primarily the life of one man. Incidentally it is more, for through it one is carried from his own present limitations into a spacious and genial world. The reader there meets a vast number of people, men, women, children, nay even animals, from George the Third down to the cat Hodge. By the author’s magic each is alive, and the reader mingles with them as with his acquaintances. It is a varied world, and includes the smoky and swarming courts and highways of London, its stately drawing-rooms, its cheerful inns, its shops and markets, and beyond is the highroad which we travel in lumbering coach or speeding postchaise to venerable Oxford with its polite and leisurely dons, or to the staunch little cathedral city of Lichfield, welcoming back its famous son to dinner and tea, or to the seat of a country squire, or ducal castle, or village tavern, or the grim but hospitable feudal life of the Hebrides. And wherever we go with Johnson there is the lively traffic in ideas, lending vitality and significance to everything about him.

A part of education and culture is the extension of one’s narrow range of living to include wider possibilities or actualities, such as may be gathered from other fields of thought, other times, other men; in short, to use a Johnsonian phrase, it is ‘multiplicity of consciousness.’ There is no book more effective through long familiarity to such extension and such multiplication than Boswell’s Life of Johnson. It adds a new world to one’s own, it increases one’s acquaintance among people who think, it gives intimate companionship with a great and friendly man.

The Life of Johnson is not a book on first acquaintance to be read through from the first page to the end. ‘No, Sir, do YOU read books through?’ asked Johnson. His way is probably the best one of undertaking this book. Open at random, read here and there, forward and back, wholly according to inclination; follow the practice of Johnson and all good readers, of ‘tearing the heart’ out of it. In this way you most readily come within the reach of its charm and power. Then, not content with a part, seek the unabridged whole, and grow into the infinite possibilities of it.

But the supreme end of education, we are told, is expert discernment in all things — the power to tell the good from the bad, the genuine from the counterfeit, and to prefer the good and the genuine to the bad and the counterfeit. This is the supreme end of the talk of Socrates, and it is the supreme end of the talk of Johnson. ‘My dear friend,’ said he, ‘clear your mind of cant; . . . don’t THINK foolishly.’ The effect of long companionship with Boswell’s Johnson is just this. As Sir Joshua said, ‘it brushes away the rubbish’; it clears the mind of cant; it instills the habit of singling out the essential thing; it imparts discernment. Thus, through his friendship with Boswell, Johnson will realize his wish, still to be teaching as the years increase.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31