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'Boswell’s Presumptuous Task: The Making Of The Life Of Dr. Johnson' by Adam Sisman

Boswell gets his due as biographer of Dr. Johnson

Sunday, August 26, 2001

By Roger K. Miller


Boswell’s Presumptuous Task: The Making Of The Life Of Dr. Johnson

By Adam Sisman

Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Are you dilatory and indecisive? Do you dither yet run off in all directions at once? Are you overfond of strong drink and easy women, usually in conjunction? Do the most basic principles of money management elude you? Is “ridiculous” the word to describe you on most public occasions?

If so, take heart. They may be just the attributes to gain you lasting fame, if the career of James Boswell is any example. Of course, you will have to do something like write one of the most renowned works in English literature, as Boswell did with “The Life of Samuel Johnson,” and wait a century to get your due, but then, success rarely comes easy.

Those traits and others equally unflattering made up a large part of the hapless Boswell’s personality, Adam Sisman shows in his superb new book -- superb not least for its reasonable length in an age of biographical bloat, though the book is not so much a biography of Boswell as of Boswell’s book.

Sisman is interested in Boswell the biographer and what drew him to Johnson.

He writes about an unlikely friendship “between two very different but both, in their own ways, delightful men. ... one stern, the other frivolous; one heavy, the other skittish; one skeptical, the other proto-Romantic.”

Boswell desperately needed a figure to admire, a mentor, an idol -- possibly because his own character remained so inchoate all his life, possibly because of the awful relationship with his own father.

Johnson would be the obvious man to admire. At the time they first met on May 16, 1763, Johnson was not only the “Great Cham” of English literature, but one of the leading figures of the age. Boswell was 22 and single; Johnson, 53 and a widower with no children of his own.

In our imaginations, Boswell and Johnson are joined at the hip, so closely did the younger man hang on the older’s every word to preserve it for posterity, yet it has been calculated that actually they were together a total of about 400 days over 21 years.

Though they met only intermittently in later years, Johnson remained Boswell’s mentor (and “Guide, Philosopher, Friend”).

That friendship produced the remarkable biography, “Life of Johnson.” The process of producing it, after Johnson’s death in 1784, was neither easy nor pretty nor swift. Though others had known the great man longer, Boswell was widely considered the natural choice for biographer.

That did not stop others from leaping in. Many biographies, collections of sayings, and other works came out before Boswell published his “Life” in 1791.

It went slowly because Boswell was determined to create something new: a detailed life of the subject as he really was, not, as was then customary, a morally edifying remembrance.

It was not easy because of Boswell’s endless hunt for materials, which he was soliciting even as the first parts of the massive “Life” were being printed. His extensive use of conversations that he had recorded on paper was highly controversial and much resented, though Johnson himself seems to have approved of it.

It was not pretty because Boswell’s life, never well structured at any time, became a galloping shambles. Debt-ridden, drunk, riddled with venereal disease and clinging to a hopeless legal career, he was a laughingstock.

What resulted, though, is one of the glories of our literature, one that, Sisman says, still “raises fundamental questions about the nature of biography.” The “Life” is a hybrid, “a memoir concealed within a life,” in which the biographer is a character in his own book.

Indeed, much of the pleasure of the book comes from Boswell as narrator, almost, at times, as ventriloquist. Johnson and Boswell are eternally yoked, each to some extent a creation of the other.

“In making Johnson a hero,” Sisman concludes, “Boswell made sense of his own life” -- a life that ended at 54, four years after the publication of his magnum opus.

The “Life of Johnson” has been celebrated as a magnum opus, with occasional cavils, for more than 200 years. Not so its author. Indeed, for a long time it was considered to be a great book written by a simpleton, a sponger on the prodigious Johnson, until the discoveries of several hoards of long-hidden Boswell manuscripts revealed independent proof of his writing powers.

Apparently, just as Boswell’s frequently buffoonish behavior did not rule out his being a charming friend and companion, neither did it rule out genius.

Roger K. Miller was a newspaperman for many years and is now a free-lance writer who lives in Wisconsin.

“Boswell’s Presumptuous Task: The Making Of The Life Of Dr. Johnson”

By Adam Sisman.

Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $25.

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