Boswell's Presumptuous Task: The Making of the Life of Dr. Johnson

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9780142001752: Boswell's Presumptuous Task: The Making of the Life of Dr. Johnson

James Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson is the most celebrated of all biographies, acknowledged as one of the greatest and most entertaining books in the English language. Yet Boswell himself has generally been considered little more than an idiot and condemned by posterity as a lecher and drunk. How could such a fool have written such a book? With great wit, Adam Sisman here tells the story of Boswell's presumptuous task-the making of the greatest biography of all time. Sisman traces the friendship between Boswell and Samuel Johnson, his great mentor, and provides a fascinating account of Boswell's seven-year struggle to write The Life of Samuel Johnson.

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Review:

Adam Sisman's task is almost as "presumptuous" as the one he anatomizes with such precision and grace in his text. He has attempted a biography of a biography--and not just any biography, but the most famous one in the English language. From its publication in 1791, James Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson has been acclaimed (and reviled) as the first truly modern biography, a book that reveals its subject with unprecedented intimacy, faults and all. The 20th-century discoveries of quantities of manuscripts, including Boswell's extremely frank journals, sparked greater interest in the man once dismissed as a mere recorder of Johnson's pithy conversation, but now shown to be an ambitious writer in his own right. More to the point for Sisman, these documents made it possible to scrutinize in detail the writing of The Life of Samuel Johnson. "Why did he want so much to write about Johnson, and why did he persist in the face of so much adversity?" asks Sisman. "How did he set about his task? Did his ideas change as his writing progressed? How did he evaluate the varied and sometimes contradictory material he gathered?" These questions are still relevant to biographers today, and Sisman addresses them with sensitivity and acuity. He begins by cogently sketching the unlikely friendship begun in 1763 between a renowned 53-year-old London man of letters and a naive 22-year-old Scotsman, then moves on to examine in depth the seven years after Johnson's death during which Boswell battled depression, bouts of heavy drinking, and venereal disease to shape masses of material into a book "that stands next to other biographies as Shakespeare stands beside other playwrights: towering above them all." The result is a thoughtful and revealing analysis of the creative process by which biography, as much as fiction, is shaped. --Wendy Smith

From the Author:

Q> How would you explain the ongoing interest, amongst both scholars and general readers, in Johnson and Boswell? What drew you to write about the making of Boswell's book?

The simple answer is that the two are perennially fascinating. Hundreds of books have been written about them, yet there is always more to say, as I hope I have demonstrated. The recent discovery of Boswell's papers-his letters, manuscripts, and his extraordinary journals-has proved a gold-mine for scholars, and led to a complete reassessment of his work. He is now recognized as a writer of great skill, even genius: very different from the fool who merely copied down what people said, the image that prevailed for the first 150 years or so after his death. I was first drawn to the subject after writing a biography (of the historian A.J.P. Taylor, himself a biographer), in the process of which I became interested in biography itself. This led me on to Boswell's The Life of Johnson, the first and arguably the greatest of all biographies. And the more I learned about Boswell and Johnson, the more I wanted to know about these two unlikely friends. As A.J.P. Taylor once said, "When I want to find out about something, I write a book about it."

Q> How would you describe Boswell's influence on biography? Has this influence been entirely positive?

It's hard to assess Boswell's influence. Undoubtedly his book was a landmark, "a new species of biography" as one contemporary called it; he set a new standard of verisimilitude. But there was no "school of Boswell"; his work stands alone. More generally, I argue in my book that Boswell's Johnson was a moral and intellectual hero, who inspired the young Romantic poets, and who continues to inspire readers to this day-especially, I think, in the United States.

Q> How would you respond to those who, like Donald Greene, feel that Boswell's reputation has grown so much that it overshadows Johnson's? How would you answer Greene's charge that Boswell's apparent hero-worship of Johnson "is a mask, disguising from himself and others an unconscious wish to cut Johnson down to size and establish, in the end, the superiority of Boswell"?

Greene's charge seems to me a perverse misreading: far from wishing to cut Johnson down to size in his book, Boswell went to extraordinary lengths to defend him against what he saw as unfair criticism, for example from Mrs. Piozzi. I think it's quite clear that Boswell revered Johnson. I argue in my book that Boswell found it profoundly reassuring and indeed psychologically necessary to assert Johnson's superiority.

I do agree with Greene that there is a regrettable modern tendency to praise Boswell at Johnson's expense. But if Boswell's reputation now overshadows Johnson's, that is not his fault. Indeed, Boswell would have been horrified at the prospect.

Q> You describe in great detail Boswell's method in writing The Life of Samuel Johnson. Could you tell us something about your own way of working on Boswell's Presumptuous Task?

I can't claim that my own way of working was as colorful as Boswell's! But there are certain similarities. Like him, I live in the countryside but am repeatedly drawn to the city; like him, I was distracted by domestic concerns, and by the need to pursue another career to provide essential income, so that there were periods of a year or more when I did no writing at all; and like him, I was plagued by anxieties of various kinds, including the fear that I might be scooped by a competitor. I see now that these were misplaced; but I think such anxieties are common-perhaps universal-in writers.

Q> What is your sense of the state of the art of biography now? Are there any recent literary biographies that approach the mastery of Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson?

Right now biography is going through an interesting stage, as biographers experiment with the form in playful and sometimes outlandish ways. Meanwhile fine biographies of the more conventional type are published every year. Michael Holroyd has described this as the "golden age of biography" (though I see that he has also said recently that "biography is dead").

But there is no biography, recent or otherwise, comparable to The Life of Samuel Johnson. As I write in the concluding sentence of my book, never again will there be such a combination of subject, author, and opportunity.

Q> Would you agree with Carlyle's claim that Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson is a book "beyond any other product of the eighteenth century"?

No. How can you compare works as different as, say, Tristram Shandy and The Life of Samuel Johnson? I don't think it's profitable to rate books in this way. But I am sure that The Life of Samuel Johnson is a masterpiece, one of the outstanding books of its own or any century, a work that continues to delight and enrich readers more than two hundred years after it was written.

Q> You argue that Boswell was a kind of pre-Freudian Freudian, "the first biographer to attempt to tell the whole truth about his subject, to portray his lapses, his blemishes, and his weaknesses as well as his great qualities: an aim we take for granted today, but in Boswell's time a startling innovation." What prompted Boswell to take such an unprecedented approach, and to persist in it? Why did he feel a similar need to expose himself so completely in his journals?

The prompt was Johnson himself, who in a famous essay on biography criticized the then prevalent view that the faults of the dead should be suppressed or glossed over. On the contrary, "if nothing but the bright side of characters should be shown, we should sit down in despondency, and think it utterly impossible to imitate them in any thing." Boswell quoted from this essay in his preamble to The Life of Samuel Johnson.

Early in their friendship Johnson encouraged Boswell to write a journal, but as Boswell then revealed, he was already doing so. One can only speculate on Boswell's motives for keeping such a frank and potentially damaging journal. He certainly believed that the act of writing regularly was beneficial in itself. He claimed that reading the journal would enable him to monitor and thus improve his own behavior; and also that it might serve as "a store of entertainment for my after life"-perhaps contradictory ambitions. Boswell was anxious that his journal might be used against him, but he was haunted by a morbid fear of evanescence and a sense that his life meant nothing unless it were recorded. He had to be completely open in his journals, because he used them as a means of exploring his own thoughts and feelings. Maybe only a man with such a combination of vanity and naïveté could have written so openly about himself.

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