»  The New Criterion

March 2001

  The life & the "Life"


A Life of James Boswell
By Peter Martin
Yale University Press, 613 pp. $35

Boswell's Presumptuous Task
By Adam Sisman
Hamish Hamilton, 392 pp. £17.99

Published in 1791, the Life of Samuel Johnson became famous at once, but left everyone baffled that such a tremendous masterpiece could have been produced by James Boswell. The biographer was regarded by those who knew him as a talentless buffoon, and by others as something even less. Macaulay, most famously, pronounced Boswell "… one of the smallest men who ever lived … a man of the meanest and feeblest intellect … servile and impertinent, shallow and pedantic, a bigot and a sot … a common butt in the taverns of London." Does not a work of genius require a genius for its production?

The mystery endured for half a century, until a cache of Boswell's letters was discovered and published in the 1850s. This began the long, gradual discovery of Boswell himself, as more and more of his journals and letters came to light. We now know that the great biography of Johnson had its foundations in a much larger work of art: Boswell's obsessive chronicling of his own life. He observed early on that he would not like to live any more of life than he could record, and he seems to have remained true to this ideal, at least until his very last years.

Given that we know so intimately much about Boswell from his own hand, it seems to me a very daunting thing to attempt a biography of him. In A Life of James Boswell, Peter Martin has taken the direct approach, proceeding steadily from the subject's birth (in Edinburgh, 1740) to his death (London, 1795). Boswell's Presumptuous Task follows a different plan, giving us a decent summary of Boswell's earlier years but concentrating on the creation of the Life of Johnson, and taking its title from that book's opening sentence: "To write the life of him who excelled all mankind in writing the lives of others … may be reckoned in me a presumptuous task." The difference in the two authors' approaches to their common subject can be seen by noting the point in each book at which Boswell sits down to write the Life. This point, which occurred 83 per cent of the way through Boswell's own actual life, is reached 90 per cent of the way through the narrative part of Martin's book, but just before the half-way mark in Sisman's.

We find Boswell here much as we already knew him: bumptious, foolish, morbid, priapic, endlessly observing himself. "I have an excess of self-esteem," he noted at age 25, and he was not mistaken. To Jean-Jacques Rousseau, no less, he said at parting: "You have shown me great goodness. But I deserved it." Such a high regard for himself might have made him insufferable — but no, almost everyone seemed to like him (Mrs. Thrale and Horace Walpole were significant exceptions). As Mary Hamilton noted in her own diary: "Mr. Boswell is one of those people with whom one instantly feels acquainted." Johnson took to him at once, and wavered in his affection only when Boswell pressed him too hard for his opinions about the afterlife, a topic of endless fascination for Boswell but terrifying to the great lexicographer.

Martin is especially good on Boswell's youthful travels in Europe, and on his relationship with his cold, unimaginative father (who declared journal-keeping to be "a register of follies" and Johnson "a brute"). Sisman is at his best showing us what pains Boswell took to get his facts right in the Life. "He was determined to paint a 'Flemish picture' of his friend, faithful to life and accurate in every detail." It is, in fact, extraordinary to see this man, who in his everyday affairs was often so careless, dilatory and chaotic, authenticating his material with such diligence. Boswell himself had, of course, been the first to notice this aspect of his abilities: "How attentive and accurate I am!" he had told his journal in 1778. This assiduity would not be so striking in a biographer of our own time, but was unusual in those days. Certainly it was not Johnson's method. When Johnson was writing his Lives of the Poets, Boswell went to some trouble to arrange for him an interview with Lord Marchmont, Pope's friend and executor. Johnson could not be bothered to go. "If it rained knowledge I'd hold out my hand," he said irritably, "but I would not give myself the trouble to go in quest of it." Later, notes Martin, the two men did call on Marchmont and were treated to a feast of Popean anecdotes. Boswell took careful notes, but Johnson never used them.

All this labor was undertaken, as Johnson had said of his own work on the Dictionary, "not in the soft obscurities of retirement, or under the shelter of academick bowers, but amidst inconvenience and distraction, in sickness and in sorrow." Boswell's beloved wife died shortly after he had completed his first draft of the Life, plunging him into grief. There was also continuous financial strain. Boswell was chronically short of cash, and was for ever seeking after "preferment" — some salaried sinecure, or a seat in Parliament. In vain, for the most part: that youthful excess of self-esteem notwithstanding, Boswell felt towards the end of his life that he had been a failure. Sisman:

As a young man, Boswell had set out the achievements for which he hoped to be remembered by his grandchildren: "He improved and beautified his paternal estate of Auchinleck; made a distinguished figure in Parliament; had the honour to command a regiment of footguards, and was one of the brightest wits in the court of George the Third." Now, thirty years later, it seemed unlikely that any of these hopes would be realized.

He did his best with his responsibilities as a landowner, but perhaps there never was a man less suited to estate management. To someone with as much need for stimulation as Boswell, the slow tempo and unpolished society of the countryside were irksome. "How hard it is that I do not enjoy this fine place," he wrote to his brother from Auchinleck. All his striving for "preferment" only landed him at last in the service of Lord Lonsdale, the worst bore and greatest miser in England. Boswell got a minor position out of Lonsdale but soon gave it up as not worth the trouble.

As for being "one of the brightest wits in the court of George the Third ": well, that would not have been very difficult of attainment, but Boswell seems not to have tried very hard to seek royal favor, though he was presented several times. Sisman has a hilarious account of one of these occasions, when Boswell attempted to get the King's ruling on a delicate point of literary protocol: what was the proper way to refer to Charles Stuart, who, thirty years earlier, had tried to take the throne from George's grandfather? "[T]he King attempted to end the conversation and turned away, but Boswell took his sovereign by the elbow and brought him back round."

In his last years, with the second edition of the Life published, his hopes of preferment dwindling, his wife dead and no task to occupy himself with, Boswell sank into alcoholism and despair. He began to neglect his journal, and in April of 1794 abandoned it altogether — a very bad sign. He tried to rally himself, writing to his son in October that: "I cannot be contented merely with literary fame and social enjoyments. I must still hope for some creditable employment, and perhaps I may yet attain it." Six months later he was dead.

Both these books are very worthy, each in its own way. Neither is infected with any lit-crit faddishness, or with the kind of psychological speculations that, for me, somewhat marred Jackson Bate's 1977 biography of Johnson. I did jump slightly at the point where, in his introduction, Sisman declares his intention to "deconstruct" the Life, but it was a false alarm: the spirit of Derrida is entirely absent here. These are matter-of-fact accounts of a man's life, thought and work, Sisman concentrating more especially on the work.

Both books came to me in finished form, not as reviewer's galleys, and I cannot leave them without some remarks on editing. Boswell's Presumptuous Task is well produced. The only mistake I spotted was George the Third saying: "I glory in the name of Britain" (should be "Briton"). Peter Martin's book, on the other hand, must be traversed through a steady drizzle of errors and typos, some of them very disorienting in a biography. When you are trying to keep track of precisely where you are in a person's life, it does not help to have "1766" printed for "1776," or "October" for "May." (Why do not all biographers follow Boswell in printing the year, and the subject's age, at the top of every page?) Boswell's son James was born in 1778, not 1779. Johnson was 53 at their first meeting, not 54. We are given Johnson's opinion about vows in chapter 13, and then all over again in chapter 22 … and so on. Our big university presses used to be models of accuracy in editing. No longer, apparently. They — I suppose I mean their compositorial software — no longer even know how to kern away the closing quote after an italicized exclamation point. And why did neither author vouchsafe to us the piece of information — surely essential to a thoughtful reader — that Auchinleck is pronounced "affleck"?


[Note: Following my review of Sisman's book in the March issue of TNC, the magazine received the following letter from Sisman. The letter was printed, with my reply, in the May issue. I include this little exchange as an illustration of the exquisitely genteel nature of literary life in the oughts — not at all like the Hobbesian state of nature you might suspect from reading literary memoirs.]

To the editors:

I am grateful for the flattering review of the British edition of my book Boswell's Presumptuous Task in your March issue. Since your reviewer kindly remarks on the absence of errors, it may seem churlish to contradict him, but, in the interests of accuracy, I must correct his one correction. In his accession speech, George III did say "I glory in the name of Britain," not "Briton." This also give me the opportunity to point out that my book will be published in America by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in August.

Adam Sisman
Bath, England

John Derbyshire replies

I am flattered that Mr. Sisman has noticed my review of his very fine book, to which I wish all success here in the United States. The difference of opinion to which he refers came about as follows. Reading his use of the word "Britain" in that quotation, I recalled my school history text printing it as "Briton." I therefore went to my Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (second edition, 1955) for a ruling. That authority gives:

"Born and educated in this country, I glory in the name of Briton. (Speech from the throne, 1760.)"

Armed with this, and with my own instinct that "Briton" makes much more sense in the context than "Britain," I passed the remark to which Mr. Sisman has taken exception. If I was wrong, I am sorry, but I cannot feel very much abashed, since I am wrong in such good company.