The Life of Johnson (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

The Life of Johnson (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

by James Boswell, Graham Nicholls

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James Boswell's Life of Johnson has ensured that Samuel Johnson remains one of the most intriguing and loved of English literary figures. In it, we not only follow Johnson's rise to literary preeminence and his development of the Dictionary, but because the author and biographer were friends we get to relish conversations, jokes, and opinions. We learn the rough edges of Johnson's personality and gain insider insight into his complexities.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781411430822
Publisher: Barnes & Noble
Publication date: 09/01/2009
Series: Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 1056
Sales rank: 1,037,079
File size: 2 MB
Age Range: 3 Months to 18 Years

About the Author

James Boswell was born in Edinburgh in 1740, the son of a prominent Ayrshire landowner and Scottish judge. He moved to London with the hopes of meeting the great figures of the day, and by chance met Samuel Johnson in the parlor of a Covent Garden bookshop in 1763. Although Boswell and Johnson only spent about three months together after their first encounter, Boswell had by this time fallen under Johnson's influence. However, it was the experience that they shared on their hundred-day trip to Scotland's Western Isles in 1773 that gave Boswell his best opportunity to see his friend in an environment in which he would learn even more about him than in the London coffeehouses. Boswell died in May 1795.


James Boswell's Life of Johnson is a great biography of a great man. Samuel Johnson dominates the middle years of the eighteenth century as a writer and a scholar; his life story, written by Boswell, Johnson's friend of the last third of his life, has extended Johnson's fame far beyond that of other major writers of his age. Encountering Johnson in Boswell's pages, following his rise to literary preeminence, relishing his conversations, his jokes, his opinions, marveling at his complexities, being exasperated by the rough edges of his personality, and standing in awe at his humanity-these aspects of Boswell's book have ensured that Johnson remains one of the most intriguing and loved of English literary figures.

The appearance of Boswell's book was eagerly anticipated, whipped up in large part by its author's canny feeling for publicity. One day in December 1785, Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, was discussing contemporary writers with her lady-in-waiting, Fanny Burney. Their conversation turned to Boswell's projected biography of his friend. Queen and lady-in-waiting were intrigued by what sort of book would do justice to "so extraordinary a man" and they looked forward expectantly to the finished result. Fanny Burney noted in her diary the queen's words, "He will devise something extraordinary," and the world has, by and large, endorsed the ladies' hopes. Boswell's biography of his friend, which appeared five and a half years later, is an "extraordinary" portrait of "an extraordinary man." Lord Macaulay's magisterial assessment in the Edinburgh Review of 1831 probably sums up the feelings of most of Boswell's readers: "Homer is not more decidedly the first of heroic poets, Shakespeare is not more decidedly the first of dramatists, Demosthenes is not more decidedly the first of orators, than Boswell is the first of biographers." Though Johnsonians may regret the fact, for the majority of the reading public "Johnson" continues to mean the fascinating central figure of Boswell's biography rather than the author of The Vanity of Human Wishes or the Dictionary of the English Language.

Although Boswell is not "the first of biographers" in the sense that he originated the form-the famous opening sentence of his book acknowledges Johnson's prior contribution to the genre-most subsequent biographers have consciously or unconsciously followed and measured themselves against Boswell's achievement. But although Boswell's stature as biographer and his appeal to readers for more than two hundred years is not in dispute, the precise nature of his achievement has often been unclear. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries there was a feeling that Boswell was a silly fellow, endowed with more than the usual share of human weaknesses, who had somehow, in spite of himself, produced a portrait of his friend replete with humanity, humor, and intelligence. Despite his praise for Boswell's biography, Macaulay maintained that the Life of Johnson was a good book because its author was a fool; a century later, Cyril Connolly, in his collection of essays, The Evening Colonnade, similarly observed that the Life of Johnson was the creation of a man "silly, snobbish, lecherous, tipsy, given to high-flown sentiments and more than a little of a humbug." Boswell's "foolishness" derives in part from undoubted features of his character-he was a heavy drinker, his womanizing was proverbial, he could be mightily insensitive to other people's feelings-but some of these characteristics are part of Boswell's deliberately naive attempts to portray himself as a lesser being to Johnson's titanic intelligence. Sometimes a modern reader will react more sympathetically to Boswell's appealing pose of boyish innocence than earlier critics accustomed to appropriate authorial gravitas. Boswell delights modern readers with engaging anecdotes of how as a young man he entertained a theater audience with impressions of farmyard animals, but many contemporary readers were baffled and embarrassed by such a seemingly ingenuous display of naiveté.

James Boswell was born in Edinburgh in 1740, the son of a prominent Ayrshire landowner and Scottish judge. His relations with his father were fraught with conflict. Though Boswell senior might have been able to accept the young man's first sexual experiences with Edinburgh actresses, his son's dalliances with Methodism and Roman Catholicism were another matter. James had been given a good Scottish education at Edinburgh and Glasgow Universities, but he continued to vacillate about his future. A career in an English guards' regiment seemed promising: This would mean living in London, a city that James equated with intellectual pleasures and less exalted physical ones. Determined however that his son should follow him into the law, Boswell's father compromised: He would allow his son a modest allowance which would enable him to live in London and make some sort of half-hearted attempt to enter the military; but should that prove unsuccessful (as it surely would) he must buckle down to his legal studies. Boswell's account of this London visit, the subject of his famous London Journal, shines with a young man's enthusiasm for life, its pleasures, and its curiosities. Boswell was determined to meet great figures, including Samuel Johnson, probably the most famous literary personality of his day.

After several failed attempts at meeting, the two men met by chance in the parlor of a Covent Garden bookshop on May 16, 1763. Boswell was twenty-two, Johnson was fifty-three. The son of a Midland bookseller, Johnson had been living in London for twenty-six years, making his way with varying degrees of success as a writer and scholar until, by the time Boswell met him, he had achieved critical success with works like the Dictionary of the English Language, the Rambler essays, his poem The Vanity of Human Wishes, and the novel Rasselas. In the year before he met Boswell, Johnson had been awarded a state pension for his services to language and literature; two years later he would receive the first of the honorary degrees which would make him the "Doctor Johnson" of popular fame. But though his writing had made him a celebrity, much of the world was beginning to be acquainted with a Samuel Johnson who was more than a great poet, essayist, critic, and scholar. The men and women who came to visit Johnson in his homes in the Fleet Street area of London-soon to be joined by young Boswell-were anxious to meet not just a great writer, but someone whose wisdom and knowledge of the world would enrich and enlighten them. Boswell too had read Johnson's essays in Scotland, and their insights into the moral complexities of living persuaded him that the author was someone he wished to meet, a sage with whom he might be able to discuss the problems he was encountering in his daily life. His Life of Johnson is, among many other things, an attempt to reproduce for future generations the invigorating qualities Boswell had discovered in the man who was to be his friend.

Like many famous encounters, that first meeting in Covent Garden did not begin propitiously. However, Boswell was charming and resilient, and gradually Johnson responded to this intelligent young man's wish to understand himself and his obvious desire to learn from Johnson's perspicacious knowledge of human nature.

Boswell was to leave for Europe in just under three months to continue his legal studies, but his account of his blossoming friendship with Johnson is one of the golden episodes of English literary history. Friendship becomes a major theme of Boswell's biography: friendship between Johnson and the members of his circle and, more particularly, that between Boswell and Johnson. Because Boswell's life was divided between his life in Scotland, his travels in Europe, and his visits to England, one of the narrative devices which runs through the book is the series of departures and meetings which characterize their relationship. On his return to England, Boswell took up the threads of their relationship. He was now speaking of his intention to write a life of his friend. Drinking tea together at his lodgings, Boswell informed Johnson of his intentions: "I said, that if it was not troublesome and presuming too much, I would request him to tell me all the little circumstances of his life: what schools he attended, when he came to Oxford, when he came to London, &c. &c.. He did not disapprove of my curiosity as to these particulars; but said, 'They'll come out by degrees as we talk together'" Boswell identifies here the principal problem in writing an account of Johnson's life: those fifty-three years before they met. Boswell had a fierce pride in his project and he was well aware that there were members of Johnson's circle who had known him since his early London days and who were capable of writing their own accounts. There was another problem as well: Most of Boswell's life was now spent in Scotland. He had a wife and a growing family and had responsibilities on his Ayrshire estate as well as professional legal duties in Edinburgh. There would be less opportunity to spend time with Johnson than in the holiday atmosphere of those first months in 1763. Any opportunities to gather details of his early life would have to be carefully arranged. There were visits with Johnson to the sites of his early life in the English Midland counties, but Boswell was able to study his friend, listen to him, ask him pertinent (and occasionally impertinent) questions best during the hundred days the two men spent together in Scotland in 1773. The tour gave Boswell his best opportunity to see his friend in an environment in which he would learn even more about him than in the hurly-burly of the London social scene.

For about the last eleven years of Johnson's life Boswell began to accumulate notes and facts about his life, especially Johnson's early days. In March 1776, for example, he talked to Edmund Hector, a school friend of Johnson's, who told him many Johnsonian anecdotes which Boswell recorded, with Johnson's approval, in a special notebook.

Johnson died in December 1784. Almost at once Boswell received a letter from a publisher asking him for a memoir of his friend. Despite his long-held intention to write such a book and the initial notes he had made, Boswell was apprehensive: "I was . . . uneasy to think that there would be considerable expectations from me . . . that habits of indolence and dejection of spirit would probably hinder me from laudable exertion." He looked back enviously to a time when he had been able to write effortlessly and confidently. "I hoped I should do better than I at first apprehended." But Boswell gathered his resolve and within a month was writing again to members of Johnson's circle for more information or letters from their mutual friend.

Boswell's main sources of information were the notebooks containing biographical facts gleaned from Johnson and his friends, Johnson's letters, miscellaneous documents of various kinds, such as more or less complete accounts of a few key incidents and lists of Johnson's writings, and above all, the journals which Boswell had kept (and was to continue to keep) since before the two men had met in 1763.

Contrary to his popular image, Boswell was not an obsessive minutes secretary, avidly writing down verbatim Johnson's words as he uttered them. Though occasionally making a note in company, Boswell's usual practice was to write down summary notes as soon as possible after a conversation-what he called "portable soup"-which he would later expand (sometimes on the same day) into full accounts of what Johnson and others present had said. At their very first meeting, Boswell had commented that he would make careful reports in his journal of Johnson's talk, and these conversations, based on the journal entries, and recorded in the Life of Johnson, are the heart of the book.

In the year following Johnson's death, Boswell had published his journal of the Scottish tour as a sample of his biographical method and as a foretaste of the full biography of his friend. Although The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson was a popular success, it attracted critically hostile comments of the kind which were to appear with even greater force when the Life of Johnson appeared six years later.

At the time Boswell was writing his Johnsonian biographies, there was a widespread feeling that presenting a person's life story to the general public should be a moral activity. On occasion all writers were obliged to provide morally sound reasons for writing; it was not sufficient to claim that they were simply entertaining the reading public. If a biographer was to be placed before the court of criticism, it was not particularly difficult to set out a highly principled case. Reading an account of a good life (and frequently a good death) made the reader a better person: He or she would learn how to behave properly and how to wrestle with the problems that life threw at one. It was not necessary to provide a perfectly blameless life story: A few imperfections would caution the reader against complacency and the hero or heroine could be shown overcoming his or her weaknesses to achieve worldly, spiritual, or intellectual success. There was also the question of decorum. Although earlier biographers might sometimes include small, lively details of their subject's lives, there was a general feeling that too many descriptions of quirks of character, dress, habits, speech, and patterns of daily life were irrelevant and would confuse the broad moral thrust of biography.

Even a casual reading of Boswell's Johnson biographies will show that this was not the kind of biography Boswell was constructing. Full-blooded descriptions of Johnson's table manners, his touching relationship with his cat, his peculiar tics and twitchings, his coarse, loud laughter embarrassed many of Boswell's contemporary critics as much as they have delighted subsequent readers. "Was it right or justifiable in Mr. Boswell to record and publish [Johnson's] prejudices, his follies and whims, his weaknesses, his vices?" wrote a contemporary critic in the English Review, and a few of Johnson's friends were uneasy at the sort of picture Boswell was putting together of their revered friend. When one of them suggested that he tone down some of Johnson's rougher qualities, Boswell exclaimed that "he would not cut off his claws, nor make a tiger a cat, to please anybody." Such an attitude may have led to a truer picture of a great man, but it did not assist the author in his writing. Although most of Johnson's friends gave freely of their memories and papers, a few of them, like Fanny Burney, did not succumb to the Boswellian charm and refused to cooperate from the first, while others, such as the antiquary Thomas Percy, panicked at the last moment, and asked for his name to be removed from the printed book.

In the years between Johnson's death and the publication of the biography, Boswell was frequently overwhelmed by the amount of work required of him. "You cannot imagine," he wrote to a friend in 1789, "what labour, 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. Many a time have I thought of giving it up." Progress was hindered by the problems of his private life. In 1786, Boswell moved with his family to London to begin practice at the English bar; it was a disastrous decision, as were his attempts to enter political life. His extramarital sexual activity increased and his alcoholism became chronic. Boswell was forced to admit the truth of his wife's words as, slowly dying from a terminal disease, she tried to confront her husband with the reality of his situation: "I must now be satisfied," Boswell was told, "that . . . I led a life of dissipation and intemperance, so that I did not go on even with my Life of Dr Johnson, from which I expected both fame and profit." His great support was the scholar Edmond Malone, whose personal and literary help make him in effect the editor of the Life of Johnson. Malone pushed Boswell along, giving him practical and intellectual assistance through his darkest moments. In June 1786, Malone advised Boswell, who was overcome by the cumulative mass of his research materials, to make a chronological skeleton around which he could arrange his papers. Boswell swung into action and three days later he spent all day working, with no break for food. Boswell realized the problems this created, and in the following month he adopted a healthier regime, still shutting himself up in his house, but now allowing himself a break for tea and dried toast in the morning and boiled milk and toast in the evening. On several occasions, especially when revising material for publication, Boswell and Malone worked well into the night to prepare copy for the printer.

Boswell was wracked by anxiety, dreaming one night that Johnson came to him, complaining that the approach of death had meant he had not had time to put his own library into satisfactory order. Boswell (with Malone at his shoulder) threw himself into the tiniest detail of book production, choosing the style and size of his book's print and designing the title page. In a real sense, by writing the Life Boswell was giving a purpose to his own life, directionless since Johnson's death. If Boswell could not have the companionship of a living Johnson, then the Johnson who was the subject of the biography must serve the purpose. His book, he admitted shortly before publication, was "the most important, perhaps now the only concern of any consequence that I ever shall have in the world."

Boswell's Life of Johnson was published on May 16, 1791, twenty-eight years to the day since the two men had first met. The huge popularity of the book was pleasing to Boswell but the emptiness of his life loomed large now that his work was complete. At a party to celebrate the book's success there were loyal toasts to Johnson's memory and as usual Boswell "got into a pretty good state of joviality," but "I was . . . still dreary at bottom." He occupied himself with additions and corrections for a second edition of the book, but he died, his health broken by drink and venereal disease, in May 1795. The loyal Edmond Malone saw his final corrections through the press for a third edition in 1799.

Today there are Johnson museums in his former houses in Lichfield and London; his work and his life are commemorated in biographies and academic studies; and at annual dinners throughout the world toasts are drunk "to the immortal memory of Dr Samuel Johnson." Johnson's creative output would have been sufficient to sustain that immortality for two centuries, but Boswell's Life of Johnson has ensured that Johnson has a popular reputation extending well beyond the normal readership for serious literature. There would certainly be a Johnson without Boswell, but he would be a remoter figure than the fully rounded, fascinating central character of Boswell's masterpiece.

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