How is it that a footloose, irresponsible, melancholic, promiscuous, heavy-drinking and occasionally buffoonish Scotch laird wound up producing what is still regarded as one of the finest biographies in the English language more than 200 years after its original publication? The explanation, as historian Adam Sisman documents in his fine book, Boswell’s Presumptuous Task: The Making of the Life of Doctor Johnson, lies in the marvelous confluence of serendipitous circumstances and a tremendous natural reservoir of latent genius. Sisman’s book is obviously a labor of love, and his excellent and well-researched work provides a comprehensive and pleasurable overview of the creation of a historical and literary classic, and of the lives of both the biographer and his illustrious subject.
Not having, as yet, had the opportunity to dip into Frederick Pottle’s two-volume biography of James Boswell, much of the background information on Boswell (and Johnson) presented in the book is new to me. For example, I was aware of the troubled relationship that existed between the eccentric and flighty James, and his rather dour and conservative father, from my reading of the first few volumes of the former’s published journals, but did not know that friction between the two nearly led to the younger Boswell being disinherited. Nor did I know the full measure of heartbreak that Samuel Johnson experienced upon the death of Hill Boothby, a young woman toward whom he had formed matrimonial hopes after the death of his first wife, Tetty.
But the principal theme of the book is the friendship between Boswell and Johnson, and how this relationship ultimately led to the creation of the Life. They were an unusual pair: the “literary dictator” of London, an imposing and often intimidating figure (albeit, in personal manners and mannerisms, coarse and ungainly); and the ambitious and flighty lawyer, and self-appointed amanuensis, whose bouts of wanton dissipation hindered practically every endeavor into which he entered. Yet, Boswell’s extraordinary powers of observation, his memory, and his method of recording the many conversations to which he was party, in conjunction with the truly groundbreaking thoroughness of his research, ultimately enabled him to overcome his many personal foibles and produce one of the greatest biographies of his or any other age.
In this task, he was ably assisted by his friends, primarily Edmund Malone, the Shakespearean scholar, who not only helped to edit the Life, but its precursor, A Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides While Boswell was eager to show all sides, not only of Dr. Johnson, but of his extensive acquaintance, Malone succeeded in persuading Boswell to soften some of his observations, in order to avoid certain more outrageous (and possibly libelous) comments that had been made from time to time by his hero. For example:
It was bad enough for the Reverend Kenneth Macaulay (a great-uncle of the historian) to find himself described a a “coarse man” in the published version; but at least this was better than the description Johnson had actually given him: “the most ignorant booby and grossest bastard.”After Johnson’s death in 1784, Boswell – for whom the loss of his moral anchor left him feeling stunned – was thought by practically all to be the natural biographer of the great man; nonetheless, even when faced with competition from other of Johnson’s friends, including Mrs. Piozzi and Sir John Hawkins, Boswell took over six years to bring the book to press. The delays were not all due to his tendency toward procrastination and dissipation; his wife, Margaret, had been ill from tuberculosis for years, and he was still trying to establish something of a legal career for himself. Adding to his troubles was the necessity of traveling about on the business of his Scottish political patron, Lord Lonsdale, a powerful, selfish and even sadistic man, of exceedingly mercurial temperament (believe me: if you think you’ve ever had a terrible boss, you haven’t seen anything until you read the sections in the book about this fellow). And, as Sisman points out, Boswell was writing a new kind of biography, one that would be supported by exhaustive research – an approach that, while time-consuming, helped turn the Life into the classic that it is.
The Life of Johnson was soon acknowledged as a masterpiece. Boswell had extended the form into new territory, borrowing techniques from the novel, the theatre, and the confessional memoir. With meticulous care, with long-practiced skill, and with a generous imagination, he crafted a character who lived and breathed. He also set new scholarly standards: his verification of every possible detail, which seemed so eccentric to his contemporaries, would become the norm.As someone who has long been partial to 18th century English literature, I am indebted to Mr. Sisman for helping me to renew what I almost consider to be old friendships, with Johnson, Boswell, Malone and Mrs. Piozzi, and for introducing me to some striking new historical figures who were previously unknown to me. Above all, I am glad to have had the opportunity to view, up close, the making of the glorious Life, and of the inglorious and often tragic, but finally triumphant, life of the man who created it.