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The Life of Johnson is assuredly a great, a very great work. Homer is not more decidedly the first of heroic poets, Shakspeare is not more decidedly the first of dramatists, Demosthenes is not more decidedly the first of orators, than Boswell is the first of biographers. He has no second. He has distanced all his competitors so decidedly that it is not worth while to place them. Eclipse is first, and the rest nowhere.

We are not sure that there is in the whole history of the human intellect so strange a phænomenon as this book. Many of the greatest men that ever lived have written biography. Boswell was one of the smallest men that ever lived, and he has beaten them all. He was, if we are to give any credit to his own account or to the united testimony of all who knew him, a man of the meanest and feeblest intellect. Johnson described him as a fellow who had missed his only chance of immortality by not having been alive when the Dunciad was written. Beauclerk used his name as a proverbial expression for a bore. He was the laughing-stock of the whole of that brilliant society which has owed to him the greater part of its fame. He was always laying himself at the feet of some eminent man, and begging to be spit upon and trampled upon. He was always earning some ridiculous nickname, and then "binding it as a crown unto him," not merely in metaphor, but literally. He exhibited himself, at the Shakspeare Jubilee, to all the crowd which filled Stratford-on-Avon, with a placard round his hat bearing the inscription of Corsica Boswell. In his Tour, he proclaimed to all the world that at Edinburgh he was known by the appellation of Paoli Boswell. 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, an eavesdropper, a common butt in the taverns of London, so curious to know every body who was talked about, that, Tory and high Churchman as he was, he manoeuvred, we have been told, for an introduction to Tom Paine, so vain of the most childish distinctions, that when he had been to court, he drove to the office where his book was printing without changing his clothes, and summoned all the printer's devils to admire his new ruffles and sword; such was this man, and such he was content and proud to be. Every thing which another man would have hidden, every thing the publication of which would have made another man hang himself, was matter of gay and clamorous exultation to his weak and diseased mind. What silly things he said, what bitter retorts he provoked, how at one place he was troubled with evil presentiments which came to nothing, how at another place, on waking from a drunken doze, he read the prayer-book and took a hair of the dog that had bitten him, how he went to see men hanged and came away maudlin, how he added five hundred pounds to the fortune of one of his babies because she was not scared at Johnson's ugly face, how he was frightened out of his wits at sea, and how the sailors quieted him as they would have quieted a child, how tipsy he was at Lady Cork's one evening and how much his merriment annoyed the ladies, how impertinent he was to the Duchess of Argyle and with what stately contempt she put down his impertinence, how Colonel Macleod sneered to his face at his impudent obtrusiveness, how his father and the very wife of his bosom laughed and fretted at his fooleries; all these things he proclaimed to all the world, as if they had been subjects for pride and ostentatious rejoicing. All the caprices of his temper, all the illusions of his vanity, all his hypochondriac whimsies all his castles in the air, he displayed with a cool self-complacency, a perfect unconsciousness that he was making a fool of himself, to which it is impossible to find a parallel in the whole history of mankind. He has used many people ill; but assuredly he has used nobody so ill as himself.

That such a man should have written one of the best books in the world is strange enough. But this is not all. Many persons who have conducted themselves foolishly in active life, and whose conversation has indicated no superior powers of mind, have left us valuable works. Goldsmith was very justly described by one of his contemporaries as an inspired idiot, and by another as a being

"Who wrote like an angel, and talked like poor Poll."

La Fontaine was in society a mere simpleton. His blunders would not come in amiss among the stories of Hierocles. But these men attained literary eminence in spite of their weaknesses. Boswell attained it by reason of his weaknesses. If he had not been a great fool, he would never have been a great writer. Without all the qualities which made him the jest and the torment of those among whom he lived, without the officiousness, the inquisitiveness, the effrontery, the toad-eating, the insensibility to all reproof he never could have produced so excellent a book. He was a slave, proud of his servitude, a Paul Pry, convinced that his own curiosity and garrulity were virtues, an unsafe companion who never scrupled to repay the most liberal hospitality by the basest violation of confidence, a man without delicacy, without shame, without sense enough to know when he was hurting the feelings of others or when he was exposing himself to derision; and because he was all this, he has, in an important department of literature, immeasurably surpassed such writers as Tacitus, Clarendon, Alfieri, and his own idol Johnson.

Of the talents which ordinarily raise men to eminence as writers, Boswell had absolutely none. There is not in all his books a single remark of his own on literature, politics, religion, or society, which is not either commonplace or absurd. His dissertations on hereditary gentility, on the slave-trade, and on the entailing of landed estates, may serve as examples. To say that these passages are sophistical would be to pay them an extravagant compliment. They have no pretence to argument, or even to meaning. He has reported innumerable observations made by himself in the course of conversation. Of those observations we do not remember one which is above the intellectual capacity of a boy of fifteen. He has printed many of his own letters, and in these letters he is always ranting or twaddling. Logic, eloquence, wit, taste, all those things which are generally considered as making a book valuable, were utterly wanting to him. He had, indeed, a quick observation and a retentive memory. These qualities, if he had been a man of sense and virtue, would scarcely of themselves have sufficed to make him conspicuous; but, because he was a dunce, a parasite, and a coxcomb, they have made him immortal.

Those parts of his book which, considered abstractedly, are most utterly worthless, are delightful when we read them as illustrations of the character of the writer. Bad in themselves, they are good dramatically, like the nonsense of Justice Shallow, the clipped English of Dr. Caius, or the misplaced consonants of Fluellen. Of all confessors, Boswell is the most candid. Other men who have pretended to lay open their own hearts, Rousseau, for example, and Lord Byron, have evidently written with a constant view to effect, and are to be then most distrusted when they seem to be most sincere. There is scarcely any man who would not rather accuse himself of great crimes and of dark and tempestuous passions than proclaim all his little vanities and wild fancies. It would be easier to find a person who would avow actions like those of Cæsar Borgia or Danton, than one who would publish a daydream like those of Alnaschar and Malvolio. Those weaknesses which most men keep covered up in the most secret places of the mind, not to be disclosed to the eye of friendship or of love, were precisely the weaknesses which Boswell paraded before all the world. He was perfectly frank, because the weakness of his understanding and the tumult of his spirits prevented him from knowing when he made himself ridiculous. His book resembles nothing so much as the conversation of the inmates of the Palace of Truth.

His fame is great; and it will, we have no doubt be lasting; but it is fame of a peculiar kind, and indeed marvellously resembles infamy. We remember no other case in which the world has made so great a distinction between a book and its author. In general, the book and the author are considered as one. To admire the book is to admire the author. The case of Boswell is an exception, we think the only exception, to this rule. His work is universally allowed to be interesting, instructive, eminently original: yet it has brought him nothing but contempt. All the world reads it: all the world delights in it: yet we do not remember ever to have read or ever to have heard any expression of respect and admiration for the man to whom we owe so much instruction and amusement. While edition after edition of his book was coming forth, his son, as Mr. Croker tells us, was ashamed of it, and hated to hear it mentioned. This feeling was natural and reasonable. Sir Alexander saw that, in proportion to the celebrity of the work, was the degradation of the author. The very editors of this unfortunate gentleman's books have forgotten their allegiance, and like those Puritan casuists who took arms by the authority of the king against his person, have attacked the writer while doing homage to the writings. Mr. Croker, for example, has published two thousand five hundred notes on the life of Johnson, and yet scarcely ever mentions the biographer whose performance he has taken such pains to illustrate without some expression of contempt.
    -REVIEW: Macaulay's Review of Croker's Boswell: a review of The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. Including a Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, by James Boswell, Esq. A New Edition, with numerous Additions and Notes. By JOHN WILSON CROKER, LL.D. F.R.S. Five volumes 8vo. London: 1831 (Thomas Macaulay, September 1831, Edinburgh Review)

As Adam Sisman tells us, the Whig essayist and historian Macaulay wrote such a savage review because of a feud with his fellow Member of Parliament, but Tory, John Wilson Croker:
But the most lasting effect of Macaulay's onslaught was not on Croker,...but on Boswell. For the next hundred years or more, generations of schoolchildren brought up on Macauly's collected works would form their opinion of Boswell from Macauly, just as they formed their opinion of Johnson from Boswell. In 1910, Walter Raleigh would write that "For every reader of Johnson's works, there have been perhaps fifty readers of Boswell's Life, and a hundred of Macaulay's essays. [...]

Macaulay's crushing polemic left a lasting wound on Boswell's reputation. It became the received wisdom to regard Boswell as an idiot who had somehow written a masterpiece. This seemed a paradox: how could such a fool have somehow written such a book?
Mr. Sisman's task here then is is to untangle Boswell's reputation from Macaulay's cruel caricature and Johnson's from the biographer who eclipsed him. This he proceeds to do in brilliant fashion in what is essentially a triple biography: a brief life of Samuel Johnson; a longer life of James Bowell; and a thorough history of the latter's writing of the life of the former. Always at the center of things is the great book itself.

Mr. Sisman takes his title from Boswell's opening line in the life:
To write the Life of him who excelled all mankind in writing the lives of others, and who, whether we consider his extraordinary endowments, or his various works, has been equalled by few in any age, is an arduous, and may be reckoned in me a presumptuous task.
But what he makes abundantly clear is that it was a monumental task. Boswell either invented or reinvented the biography, combining personal observation and recorded conversation with a tremendous amount of research, with primary sources, like letters and such, to create an epic drama that tells us as much about the character and personality of Samuel Johnson as about the facts of his life. More than that though, because of the relationship between the two men and thanks in large part to the very many footnotes and asides in the text -- which Mr. Sisman's book does so much to explain for us --- it tells us about Boswell's character too. Macauly's harsh assessment of Boswell the person was not far wrong. He was a drunkard, a venereal disease-ridden philanderer, a sycophant, a failure in several occupations, and a man of terrible judgment, prone to talking out of turn and sharing intimacies sure to embarrass others and himself. But Macaulay was quite wrong in his assessment of Boswell the author. Far from being a parrot, repeating verbatim the lines of his literary better, Boswell's achievement in the Life qualifies him for greatness in his own right, as do his various posthumously-published journals and the earlier Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, which established much of the template he'd follow for the larger biography. The Boswell who Mr. Sisman presents here is certainly a problematic man in moral terms, but he's not unlikable and he's certainly not a fool. And there's something truly compelling about the way he seemingly makes his Johnson, already a Christian moralist of sterling reputation, into the man he wishes he could be himself. If Boswell can be criticized for purposefully insinuating himself into Johnson's social circle for reasons of his own professional advancement, he would seem to deserve some credit for also trying to get close to the man of the age best positioned to wield a positive personal influence on him. It's the way these matters loop back upon each either, knitting the two men together and knitting both the the Life, that makes Mr. Sisman's own book such fascinating reading. If you've ever read Boswell you must read this book and if you haven't perhaps Mr. Sisman will get you to.


Grade: (A+)


See also:

Adam Sisman Links:

    -EXCERPT: First Chapter of Boswell's Presumptuous Task
    -READING GUIDE: Boswell's Presumptuous Task (Penguin)
    -BOOK GROUP: Boswell's Presumptuous Task (NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of Boswell's Presumptuous Task by Adam Sisman (CHARLES McGRATH, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Boswell's Presumptuous Task by Adam Sisman (Michael Dirda, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of Boswell's Presumptuous Task (Richard Eder, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Boswell's Presumptuous Task (John Mullan, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Boswell's Presumptuous Task (Arnold Kemp, The Observer)
    -REVIEW: of Boswell's Presumptuous Task (John Derbyshire, New Criterion)
    -REVIEW: of Boswell's Presumptuous Task ()
    -REVIEW: of Boswell's Presumptuous Task (Miranda Seymour, Atlantic Monthly)
    -REVIEW: of Boswell's Presumptuous Task (Andrew O’Hagan, London Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Boswell's Presumptuous Task (Lucy Moore, New Statesman)
    -REVIEW: of Boswell's Presumptuous Task (Roger K. Miller, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
    -REVIEW: of Boswell's Presumptuous Task (ROGER BISHOP, Book Page)
    -EXCERPT: Chapter One of A Life of James Boswell by Peter Martin
    -REVIEW: of A Life of James Boswell by Peter Martin (Claude Rawson, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of A Life of James Boswell by Peter Martin (Paul Johnson, Insight on the News)

Book-related and General Links:

    -REVIEW: Macaulay's Review of Croker's Boswell: a review of The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. Including a Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, by James Boswell, Esq. A New Edition, with numerous Additions and Notes. By JOHN WILSON CROKER, LL.D. F.R.S. Five volumes 8vo. London: 1831 (Thomas Macaulay, September 1831, Edinburgh Review)