Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) was, during the last 40 years of his life, perhaps the best known man of letters in England. And in James Boswell (1740-1795), a lawyer from Scotland with a lot of free time, it seems, he found perhaps the most diligent chronicler in the field of biography.
Boswell’s Life of Johnson is probably the best known and most lauded biography in English. Most of the stories one hears about the eminent, but rather eccentric, Johnson come, sometimes accurately, sometimes muddled, from Boswell's account.
Johnson himself wrote biographies, but these were rather short affairs. His most famous effort in biography was his Lives of the English Poets, which consists of short biographies of the most famous English poets up until Johnson’s lifetime. Though Johnson was a voluminous reader, and a man with a tremendous memory for what he had read, his research into the poets was nothing compared to Boswell's own efforts on his behalf.
Boswell took time to contact Johnson's friends and family, as well as many of the most famous people of his generation (e.g. the actor David Garrick, the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds) and of the generation prior in constructing the first part of the biography, that of Johnson's life prior to Boswell’s meeting him in 1763. And he seems to have gotten hold of every piece of correspondence he could of Johnson's, and of a great deal of the correspondence written to him, as well as reading the books and articles Johnson wrote.
Much of Johnson's biography, though, is based on Boswell’s personal relationship with Johnson. Boswell spent a considerable amount of time with Johnson from 1763 until the end of Johnson's life. Even when the two were not together, Boswell kept tabs on Johnson's doings and maintained a voluminous correspondence with him. In the year following Johnson’s death, Boswell took care to compile and craft the final version of his biography.
Much of the biography is very engaging, but Boswell's approach is largely anecdotal. As such, though we get a very thorough treatment of Johnson's sayings, beliefs, and stories, we do not always get a critical view of the man. Boswell could be critical of Johnson's apparent rudeness and even of some of his pronouncements – he and Johnson did not always agree, and when reporting a difference, Boswell is quick to point out flaws in Johnson's thinking or argumentation. Still, he was a fervent admirer of the gentleman and, for the most part, served as something of an apologist.
Johnson was quite witty, and had something to say about almost any topic. Some quotes:
On the subject of knowledge:
"Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information on it.”
On the laziness of people:
“Mankind have a great aversion to intellectual labor; but even supposing knowledge to be easily attainable, more people would be content to be ignorant than would take even a little trouble to acquire it.”
“Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”
On writing for pleasure:
"No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money."
On sailing the seas:
"No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into a jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned."
His attitude towards America and Americans was quite caustic. He once said to Boswell, who was defending the colonists,
“Sir, they are a race of convicts, and ought to be thankful for anything we allow them short of hanging."
Boswell’s thoroughness, and his anecdotal approach, while giving us a lot of information about Johnson (maybe too much), make it difficult to get a clear view of Johnson’s life. At times, there’s just too much information, and too much of the same kind of information strung together, and not enough editing. And at over 1300 pages, this is a lot to slog through. There are abridged editions of Boswell (such as that edited by Christopher Hibbert) that would get you a sense of the work in its entirety, and would give you enough of the book’s greatest asset – Boswell’s and Johnson’s literary style. The 18th c. may well be the high point of English prose style – on both sides of the pond (look at our own Declaration of Independence, Federalist Papers and Constitution) and Boswell and Johnson were both great craftsmen of the language. If you simply want a taste, get an abridged edition, but if you are so minded to take a great big bath in Johnsoniana, super-size your experience and read the whole work.
About the Author
Bernard Norcott-Mahany, a library technical assistant at the Lucile H. Bluford Branch, is our resident connoisseur of classic literature. He is also the leader of the Black Classics and In the Heat of the Night book groups.