Andrew O’Hagan

Boswell’s Presumptuous Task by Adam Sisman.

Hamish Hamilton, 352 pp., £17.99, November 2000, 0 241 13637 7
James Boswell’s ‘Life of Johnson’: Research Edition: Vol. II 
edited by Bruce Redford and Elizabeth Goldring.
Edinburgh, 303 pp., £50, February 2000, 0 7486 0606 8
Samuel Johnson: The Life of an Author 
by Lawrence Lipking.
Harvard, 372 pp., £11.50, March 2000, 0 674 00198 2
Dr Johnson’s London 
by Liza Picard.
Weidenfeld, 362 pp., £20, July 2000, 0 297 84218 8
Edna O'Brien and Andrew O'Hagan
Andrew O’Hagan at the Edinburgh Book Festival with writer Edna O’Brien. Picture by Bill Heaney

One of the general effects of hero-worship is its tendency to marshal resentment in those who claim themselves no party to the admiration. A good example of this offers itself at the opening of Vanity Fair – ‘A Novel without a Hero’ – when the single-minded Becky Sharp, high in a coach bound for Russell Square, flings a copy of Johnson’s Dictionary out of the window to land on the grass at the feet of her former teacher, a sworn disciple of the Great Lexicographer. ‘So much for the Dictionary,’ says Becky Sharp as the carriage pulls away, ‘and, thank God, I’m out of Chiswick.’

Admiration is defined by Johnson in that Dictionary as ‘taken sometimes in a bad sense, though generally in a good’, and he was, for the greater part of his life, a great engine of self-admiration, as well as a copious begetter of admiration in other people. Yet none that loved him could easily match the love of James Boswell, who puttered along for many years, joyously, drunkenly, boisterously, earnestly, with his love of Dr Johnson both a wondrous act of worship and a curious kind of self-loving. Arm in arm on their way up the High Street, Boswell and Johnson were a couple of cut-purse narcissists, the very heart of their union a common hankering after fame. No two figures in British literature – not Wordsworth and Coleridge, not Auden and Isherwood, not Holmes and Dr Watson either – so humanly combine a delight in the sweetmeats of being with the fears and rigours of moral enquiry. The friendship of these two was geological: the shifting plates of their characters, the spouting gas of their conversation, their red-hot efforts to strike a deal with respect to futurity, have left them large and lively on the page. Boswell, a slovenly, scribbling, lovable Scot, and Johnson, a cantankerous old genius, a John Bull himself, now appear to us as creatures of one another’s making. Together they constitute a minor archipelago of literary selves.

In the past it seemed natural to admire one at the expense of the other, and most natural of all, to see Boswell as the tittle-tattling toady to the illustrious wisdom of the Great Cham. This case was most damagingly pressed in the 19th century by Thomas Babington Macaulay, who saw Boswell as a wine-bibbing, plate-licking reprobate, the very smallest of men, who somehow wrote a great biography by accident. This view has been corrected somewhat by the serial publication of Boswell’s private papers, which ended up at Yale after a great adventure involving many bales of handwritten papers turning up in the attics of grand houses, and which, together, show Boswell to have been a biographer, and an autobiographer, of enormous pizzazz and originality.

Boswell’s way of talking about himself can seem to us very modern: pre-Freud and pre-tabloid, he talks in a shockingly open way about the nature of his own (and other people’s) desires, affections, tribulations and thoughts of death. He also suggests the quality of his own delight. He is a self-watcher and a self-hugger. And his way of looking at other people – including Johnson – reveals him to be a harbinger of the documentary techniques and psychological modes of enquiry we now take for granted. In his excitement at the prospect of the examined life Boswell invented modern biography. He wrote like hell, and the full fragrance, the authentic buzz, of his own life and period, such as it was, rises with Flemish exactness from every other sentence he chose to write down.

Boswell’s biography of Samuel Johnson is a call-to-arms for all makers of literary lives, and Adam Sisman, previously a biographer of A.J.P. Taylor, has taken on a genuine task, a presumptuous task indeed, to write a biography of the biography, in the hope of casting light on the very real subject of how to make a biographical subject real. His book is successful in ways that might draw attention to the failures of others; in his winningly breezy account of how Boswell came to write his big book we find ourselves closer than ever to a proper sense of the biographer’s art. In Sisman’s account, a life dedicated to the Life of another can be a life well lived, and in Boswell, a life-maker if ever there was one, he identifies the recording angel’s recording angel, a man with a tender regard for the moments and hours that make up an exemplary life.

Boswell, as he noticed himself, and as Johnson noticed, was liked by everybody; he had the gift of drawing forth affection and of making ease. He was perhaps the first biographer to write out of his personality – there is no contemporary who could have written that book – and in every line we hear his ambition and his bustle, his laughing and scraping, and even today, we find it too easy to miss the fabulous dexterity with which he managed to outwit decorum. Not that I would know, but I feel that the Life must be one of the most readable books on the planet, with more life than you get in the whole of Richardson, Fielding and Smollett put together. Sisman gives the circumstances of Boswell’s early life with keen attention to how events might have formed the future biographer.

Boswell’s father, Lord Auchinleck, was a judge, and no more of a judge than when he cast an eye on his sons: ‘can I help it if my sons are idiots?’ he said from his deathbed; and this was the sort of thing he had said all his life, unloving to a horrible degree, and unspirited when confronted with the force of James’s extravagant, ruby-cheeked willingness to take on life. Boswell revered the nobility of his ancestors, and admired his father’s standing and reason, but he just couldn’t imagine a complete life in Scotland, nor could he face the dull, claustrophobic career of an Edinburgh advocate. Whether for self-realisation, self-invention, self-abasement or self-abnegation, London was the place for Boswell, and he tells us he hugged himself when first he rode over Highgate Hill and saw the prospect of London before him. ‘For all his human failings,’ Sisman writes,

Boswell was an innocent, and remained so all his life. Eager, inquisitive and naive, he was apt to repeat what other people said without considering the consequences. He was not malicious, though his complete lack of tact sometimes made him seem so. ‘He had rather too little, than too much prudence,’ Boswell wrote of himself many years later, ‘and his imagination being lively, he often said things of which the effect was very different from the intention.’ Irony was alien to him. He could be very lively company, often acting the buffoon; he admitted that he would sacrifice almost anything for a laugh, ‘even myself’.

He was a kind of manic-depressive; after watching a public execution he would go and screw a prostitute on Westminster Bridge; the seasonal nature of his mind led him to fear God one day and then go home the next to his wife with a dose of the clap. Part of his doing the right thing was always to be worried he was doing the wrong thing. ‘I have a flow of imagination that must not be altogether restrained,’ he wrote, ‘and spirits that must be fed with amusement, otherwise they will prey upon myself.’

Sisman is especially interested in the trail of Boswell’s melancholy, and it leads from his father to Johnson and back again. But it was also a spore of fungus in the Boswell family tree: Boswell’s brother was confined in an asylum at Newcastle, and several members of his family had gone mad. A recent issue of the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine points towards the possibility that Boswell might ‘be of particular interest to a psychiatric audience’.1 All this was nonsense to Lord Auchinleck. ‘By the time he reached 30,’ Sisman writes, ‘Boswell no longer felt those “grand ebullitions and bright sparkles” that lit up his youth. “I must submit to life losing its vividness,” he complained on one occasion.’

Yet all of that vividness – and all that father-trouble, one would suspect – went directly into the writing of the Life, and this becomes Sisman’s weightier point: that the Life was, for Boswell, a prodigious act of becoming. The drama and the intimacy of Boswell’s book are a resounding proclamation of independence on the part of its author: the Life is a species of after-life, where Boswell sets out to prove himself a useful and worthy accompaniment to greatness. In a way the best biography ever written is the story of four lives: the story of Johnson as told by himself in his letters, the story of Johnson as told by Boswell in his overhearings and observations, the story of Boswell as told by Johnson’s acceptance of him, and the story of Boswell as revealed by his own, new literary style. Sisman closes in on a version of this point:

One way of reading the Life of Johnson is as a hybrid: a memoir concealed within a life. Boswell pays much less attention to the period of Johnson’s life before they met: his subject’s first 53 years take up less than one-fifth of the book, the remaining 21 more than four-fifths. From this point on, the reader is almost constantly aware of Boswell at Johnson’s side; the narrative is much more lively once he appears. The special flavour of the Life is that the biographer is a character in his own book: the principal character, some Johnsonians have grumbled.

There is a sense in which an interesting author’s second book is a kind of commentary on the first. Sisman’s book is one of these: his excursion into the nature of Boswell’s art is felicitous but also personal-seeming; the younger man who wrote about A.J.P. Taylor has a presence here, between these elegant lines of enquiry. What is it to engage with the mind of a great character, and make him live again? What does the enterprise say about the person who takes it on? ‘Johnson and Boswell,’ he writes, ‘are locked together for all time, in part-struggle, part-embrace.’ Sisman is the most Boswellian of Boswell’s recent admirers,2 and we find him more than persuasive on the strange elisions of personality and opportunity that the Life of Johnson represents.

It is one thing to point out the degree of self-invention involved in Boswell’s undertaking, but what about the degree of invention? It was very much held against Boswell, in the last century but one, that the Johnson he made was very different from the Johnson who lived, and the feeling remains strong among some people that Boswell simply made his hero up. This can’t be true: Edmund Burke remarked that Johnson appeared greater in Boswell’s books than in his own, but he readily admitted, as did all of Johnson’s friends, that Boswell had, quite inexplicably but not unexpectedly, caught the living essence of the Johnson they had known. Reading the second volume of the Yale research edition of the original manuscript of the Life,3 you can see Boswell’s method in detail, his way of bringing conversations together, making them dramatic, cutting away extraneous material, sharpening. Boswell had a prodigious memory: his detractors find it difficult to believe that he could have remembered a whole evening’s conversation, and rendered it with this degree of complexity and character. There is some dispute about whether he took notes at the table; I think he sometimes did, though most often he stayed up all night writing in his Journal what people had said.

This edition of the original manuscript is part of an effort that has been going on at Yale since they began getting the papers more than seventy years ago. It is an amazing feat of scholarship and research – really amazing – and it opens up a vast window on 18th-century British letters. Looking at this new portion of the Life manuscript you see something stunning: Boswell changes the wording of Johnson’s speech all over the place, making his hero clearer, making him morally stronger. There may be no reason for us to fuss over this, but it does raise questions about Boswell’s method: are his alterations the work of memory, or are they choices in aid of invention?

On Saturday [1 May] May 1 we dined by ourselves at our old rendezvous the Mitre tavern. He was placid but not much disposed to talk. He observed that [the Irish mixed more/better with the English than the Scots did; their language was nearer to English as a proof of which they did/do very well as Players which Scotchmen could/do not.] ‘The Irish mix better with the English than the Scots do; their language is nearer to English as a proof of which they succeed very well as Players which Scotchmen do not.’

Although the sense is more or less the same, might we not wonder where Johnson’s words actually come from? Is Boswell fashioning sentences that are like something his hero would say? Is he in a sense mimicking Johnson? The manuscript is much more like the manuscript pages of a novel than a work of non-fiction. And Boswell uses his powers of deletion like a novelist too – in order to take a firm hand in the shaping of moral character on the page. At the end of the passage just quoted, he completely deletes the following sentences:

On this subject he once said with exquisite wit to Dr Barnard now Bishop of Kilaloe who expressed an apprehension that, were he to visit Ireland he might be as severe upon the Irish as upon the Scotch. ‘No, Sir; the Irish are a fair people; they never speak well of one another.’

If we understood why Boswell expunged this bon mot we would understand more about his method: was he protecting a confidence of the Bishop of Kilaloe, or guarding his hero by not making too much of his prejudices? Whichever: the old idea that Boswell was simply a stenographer is obliterated when you see what he chose to do with his own ink.

‘Know Thyself’ was Boswell’s motto, and his great discovery might be to have found a route to that knowledge by knowing other people. Of course, when it comes to literary innovation, you can’t always rely on the innovator himself to get the point of his own efforts, but Boswell conducted his business in a state of perfect confidence. He may have been, as David Hume remarked, ‘very good-humoured, very agreeable and very mad’, but he knew exactly what his talents were, and he drove them home. He wanted to be able to imagine Johnson in every conceivable human situation, and he would provoke him, and set him up, in ways that could be upsetting to his generally collusive subject. He pressed for a supper meeting between Johnson and John Wilkes because – not in spite – of the fact that they were adversaries; he observed how Johnson ate, how he walked, and would have followed him into the bedroom if there was matter of interest there. This can be very comical, as when he asks Johnson, apropos of nothing, what he would do if he were trapped in a castle with a newborn baby. Boswell knew only too well how to draw the moral character out of people.

His style has been greatly castigated but the results have too infrequently been matched. If you don’t believe me you should take a look at Lawrence Lipking’s dreary ‘Life of an Author’, which deploys a frenetic academic semaphore in order to say things that Boswell says by noticing a cough or a sniff. Lipking’s book is more in the tradition of Sir John Hawkins, one of Johnson’s executors, who made an instant hash of his friend’s biography: his book, which acknowledges the charge that Boswell was guilty of ‘filtering Johnson through a personal strainer’, nevertheless, like everyone else’s, freely uses Boswell’s observations to glamorise his own critical readings of Johnson’s writings.

It’s not that those readings are bad – they’re intelligent – and his book is meant to mark a return to the text, but he has been understandably bowled over by Johnson’s productivity, without regard for what used to be called the Johnsonian ether, and how it came to change the air in the Great Britain of the day. I shouldn’t blame Lipking: he is a Johnsonian, and he wants us to pay attention to the great man’s paragraphs, certain that the Johnson who interests him will become better known that way. This is almost nostalgically New Critical, and will be useful, or even indispensable, to people who are fed up with jokes and well-worn tales of enjoyment. I can only blame James Boswell for making this sort of book so easy to leave down.

Boswell writes in the Life that Johnson found London to be a heaven upon earth. As usual he was also speaking for himself: ‘The truth is,’ he wrote, ‘that by those who from sagacity, attention and experience, have learnt the full advantage of London, its pre-eminence over every other place, not only for variety of enjoyment, but for comfort, will be felt with a philosophical exultation.’ Johnson, from Lichfield, and Boswell, from Edinburgh, might be forgiven for grasping their heavens wherever they could find them, but the London of their time was nevertheless in many respects a suburb of hell. Money must have cushioned them a little; Johnson was on a government pension of £300 a year and Boswell got along on what he could screw out of his father, but the condition of their linen, to say nothing of the stench around their garrets, would, by the standards of today, bring a blush to the cheek of the Almighty.

According to Liza Picard, London was home to over 10 per cent of England’s population, 650,000 souls, who lived in streets clotted with ‘a rich, glutinous mixture of animal manure, dead cats and dogs, ashes, straw and human excrement’. Half the population of England had an income of less than £23 a year per family; Johnson guessed that at least twenty people a week died on the streets of starvation; in 1759 there were twenty thousand debtors in prison; many of those who managed to survive drinking the London water put poison into their stomachs simply by eating a loaf of bread. More than half the children born in the city died before their tenth birthday. Hogarth’s study of Gin Lane – a baby falling to its death, corpses lying in the ditches, buildings collapsing, decay everywhere – is considered by some to be a piece of light-hearted caricature: in fact it is an exercise in graphic restraint. Over nine thousand children died of gin-drinking in 1751.

When he wasn’t being in a state of ‘philosophical exultation’ over all this, Boswell was complaining about the injury it served upon his person: London made him a constant companion of Signor Gonorrhoea. By the time he was pensioned, Johnson did not so much walk up the streets; it was more his style to levitate down the Strand with his mind on higher things. This may only have been a mercy: between drunken porters and scrofulous press gangs, between grave robbers and counterfeiters, along with diseased children, degraded quacks, cock-fighters, boxers, the parsons of Grub Street and the pompadours of Fetter Lane, there was little for Morality to do but tiptoe carefully and pass on.

Liza Picard allows the opportunity for lesser mortals to mire themselves in ghastliness; it is hard to imagine, as you pass through the London of 1740-70, that this was also a place where Johnson and Oliver Goldsmith, Edmund Burke and Joshua Reynolds, Edmund Malone, William Pitt and David Garrick could meet in the upstairs room of a pub to exchange genial perceptions on the course of the moral universe. I am pleased for Boswell, and grateful, too, that his mind was at once on the street and in the upstairs room. He was nothing if not a singular man: all other men could pass through his mind and step onto a page as fresh as today’s. We see in James Boswell one of the great magicians of posterity: the point of his aliveness gets a little clearer every day.


Vol. 22 No. 22 · 16 November 2000

Andrew O’Hagan describes Samuel Johnson as ‘a great engine of self-admiration’, a ‘cut-purse narcissist’ (LRB, 5 October). Are we talking about the man who wrote, ‘I have made no reformation, I have lived totally useless … This is not the life to which Heaven is promised’ – and much more to the same purpose? O’Hagan has given advance notice that it is no good arguing with him. He pours scorn on Lawrence Lipking as someone who ‘wants us to pay attention to the great man’s paragraphs’, who appeals merely to ‘people who are fed up with jokes and well-worn tales’. Most LRB readers do not feel it beneath them to pay attention to paragraphs; many of them like jokes to be funny and even well-worn tales to be true.

Isobel Grundy
University of Alberta
Edmonton, Canada

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