- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 26, 2001

BOSWELL'S PRESUMPTUOUS TASK: THE MAKING OF THE LIFE OF DR. JOHNSON
By Adam Sisman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25, 351 pages, illus.


"Come to me, my dear Bozzy," Samuel Johnson wrote in reply to a letter from James Boswell, then in Scotland and feeling sorry for himself, in February, 1781, "and let us be happy as we are. We will go again to the Mitre, and talk old times over."
Adam Sisman is a biographer of A.J.P. Taylor (not the book I reviewed a short time ago, that was Kathleen Burk's life of the historian). Mr. Sisman's "Boswell's Presumptuous Task" is a new departure, being the story of the making of a book and a masterpiece at that. It is a feast for any reader curious about how writing on a large scale actually gets done, from heroic theme and strategic method down to the the nuts-and-bolts of one page following another in the ups and downs of the writer's life.
It is no secret that "ups and downs" hardly does justice to the life of James Boswell, the Scottish companion and biographer of Samuel Johnson. Boswell had a notably tender mother, but he was a keen disappointment to his father, a Whig and judge in Scotland's Court of Sessions. The son fancied himself a Jacobite, and when in the late summer of 1773 he and Johnson made their Scottish tour, memorialized in books written by both men, in Boswell's case "The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides," they visited the Isle of Skye and met Flora Macdonald who, 28 years earlier, had helped Bonnie Prince Charlie escape after the massacre at Culloden.
Boswell, as a lawyer, was equally ineffective in both the Edinburgh courts and those of London, to which he tried to make the transition. In the early years of his career, he got a reputation for defending the hopeless, drunken soldiers and the like. Later, he remained a junior among his younger peers and failed to attract much in the way of briefs.
His dreams of achieving fame as a man of affairs foundered on Boswell's inability to grasp how the game of patronage, which in the 18th century governed power politics, was played. He was still supporting the failed Whig insurgency triggered by King George III's mental illness and expectations of a regency when it already had failed. He enjoyed access to the king, to the Prince of Wales, to William Pitt the Younger and Henry Dundas, Pitt's Scottish ally — and managed to blow it with them all.
Boswell was, of course, a great dinner-table companion. He loved London society and could fill his days without needing recourse to work. Mr. Sisman offers a nice picture of one such occasion, when "he began the day with a brandy and talk with Sir Joseph Banks, now President of the Royal Society. He breakfasted at a coffee-house in Shepherd Market, then called on William Almack, a barrister, son of the founder of the club later known as Brooks's. By the time he left Almack's, he was 'quite intoxicated.' He next encountered an acquaintance from Scotland, Sir Charles Preston, before meeting one Polly Wilson for what he described in his diaries as 'a double.'
"Another brandy gave him 'a wild glow.' He saw Miss Palmer, niece to Sir Joshua Reynolds, and met Edmund Burke with his son, before dining in a party that included his old friend John Wilkes. Afterwards he listened to music at the home of Mrs Cosway, the beautiful wife of the Court miniaturist Richard Cosway, before a supper with an Ayrshire friend, washed down with two bottles of claret. Though he claimed to be 'quite sober' when he went to bed, he felt ill the next day, and did not rise until the afternoon."
Boswell neglected his long-suffering wife, Margaret when she was dying of tuberculosis, in order to be in London where work on his writing went better than in Scotland. But with much toil and between the combined distractions of pleasure and depression, he did get "The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D." done, changing the way biography would be written ever after. Discarding the conventional reverence for his subject, Boswell presented Johnson as he was in both public life and the private realm. And in his zeal for checking and rechecking facts he brought a new "scrupulous authenticity" to the biographer's art.
He did not know everything, of course, no biographer ever does, and Boswell only had met his subject when Johson already was 53 years old. Sir John Hawkins, whose biography of Johnson preceded Boswell's, had known his man for 40 years to Boswell's 20. But Hawkins' book was nowhere near so good — honest, but stodgy and judgmental stuff. When Boswell finally got his "Life of Johnson" out in 1790, six years after Johnson died, it was an immediate success, with what negative reviewers there were complaining that the book was too informal, too entertaining, too much fun. Soame Jenyns, the poet, mocked Boswell and Johnson's close friend Hester Thrale, who published her correspondence with the great man, in his lines:
Boswell and Thrale, retailers of his wit,
Will tell you how he wrote, and talked, and coughed, and spit.
For the first 100 years after the "Life" was published, Boswell tended to be reckoned a fool who'd had the luck to write a great book, or at best a "stenographer" of Johnson's famous talk and wit and wisdom. Over the past century, however, Boswell scholarship has eclipsed the study of Johnson's works, and Mr. Sisman shows how Boswell managed to get it so right. The foundation of the Scotsman's literary life was finding a father-figure and mentor in Johnson, and in the journal which the older man recommended he keep. Boswell, at first writing to alleviate the melancholia to which he was prone, came to invest a strange faith in his journals, into which he poured his recollections of Johnson and others, facilitated by a prodigious memory.
Not infrequently, this was the cause of trouble for the diarist, when friends who had believed their offhand remarks to be private came across them in print. Mr. Sisman rates the "Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides" a literary success but a professional disaster, and Edmund Burke never trusted Boswell after publication of his "Life of Johnson." Burke understood how hypocritical political life inevitably was, and how wounding of the spirit that could be, and he relied upon more candid talk after hours with his friends to correct for it. Encountering his looser remarks in Boswell's book was a kind of betrayal.
When it came to writing about Johnson, Boswell's journals were the secret of his method and success. He first decided to put as much as he could in whole, including Johnson's letters, making for no more transcription than was necessary. This was the opposite of Johnson's own method, which was to start with facts and then demonstrate their truth; Boswell settled for presenting the materials and letting the facts speak for themselves. Next, he made perhaps his most important decision, to present the life of his hero in a sequence of "scenes."
Prodigious research and constantly adding new material resulted in a draft of some 416,000 words by the time Boswell got down to the editing, filling in of gaps and polishing. He had moral support from William Temple, his old friend in Cornwall, and a lot of editorial assistance from another friend, Edmond Malone. His publisher, Charles Dilly, was an additionqal source of strength. Working in the spurts his apparently cyclothymic personality allowed, Boswell at last got the project completed and went on to produce a somewhat bizarre second edition which had the index in the middle of the book.
In the years following Boswell's death at 54, more of his notes and journals cropped up in dismaying succession. His family, embarrassed by their relative's racy reputation, tried for many years to keep a lid on further disclosures. But eventually most of the material found its way into the hands of people wanting to study or publish them. Col. Ralph Isham spent a fortune purchasing Boswell papers from skittish family members. Scholars, not least Thomas Babington Macaulay, have steered the course of Boswell's reputation in the 200 years since his death. Others include George Birkbeck Hill in the 1880s, and Chauncey Brewster Tinker of Yale. Frederick A. Pottle was the most famous Boswell scholar of them all. Meanwhile, the search for, and celebration of, this erratic yet inspired, failed Scottish lawyer shows no sign of letting up.



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