Boswell's Presumptuous Task

Adam Sisman

Read February-March 2004

Boswell deserves better. When his seminal biography first emerged, he was viewed as something of Johnson's lap dog, eagerly scribbling every utterance of his master. A century later, he came to be seen as a strong author in his own right. The further availability of Johnson's and Boswell's writings, and of their correspondents', has lead scholars to wonder how much of Johnson is original and how much is actually Boswell's creation (a situation reflected in another great literary partnership: was Plato merely Socrates's amanuensis?). And if Boswell created Johnson, was he a literary genius or a fraud? Some of these concerns are of course merely scholastic; Johnson's serious works, including his dictionary and his letter to Chesterfield, must surely erase many doubts as to his authentic wit.

Since there is no shortage of biographies of these characters, Sisman instead undertakes a study of the writing of Boswell's life. Sadly, much of the book becomes a relatively uninteresting account of Boswell's peculiarities. Sisman's Boswell is the perfect personification of Eliot's Prufrock: “I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;/Am an attendant lord, one that will do/To swell a progress, start a scene or two [...] Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;/At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—/Almost, at times, the Fool”. This excerpt from Eliot so perfectly sums up Boswell in my mind that the account in Sisman's book is worth reading only for the details.

If you can get past the trivia of Boswell's life, you'll find Sisman does raise some fascinating issues. One is the immense power and importance of publishers, especially of pamphlets and other pulp material. The second is the question of the privacy Boswell's dinner companions could expect (he was especially lax in respecting theirs, resulting in many a dust-up). There is, of course, Boswell's impact on the art of biography: his obsessive fact-checking; his remarkable insertion of himself into the biographee's life; and the (for his time) unflattering portrayal of his subject, which Sisman argues coincides with advice Johnson gave Boswell on the responsibility of a biographer. Finally, we learn about Boswell's method (memory, not stenography); Sisman also reminds us how little contact Boswell really had with his hero.

In addition to these lofty matters, numerous interesting characters flit by. Boswell lived in London during crucial periods of British power and Continental unrest, and such dignitaries as George III, Warren Hastings and Joshua Reynolds make repeated (and revealing) appearances. We even see Edmund Burke's views evolve even as the French Revolution unfolds across the Channel.

Sisman also examines some controversies of Johnsonia. He focuses on Johnson's biographers, on the unwritten agreements regarding Johnson's sex life, on the second marriage he never had, and on the extent to which the words attributed to him were really Boswell's. These details, though, while not exactly boring, are likely to matter most to people who have actually followed these issues in other books.

Thanks to Lee Millward for bringing this book to my attention. She tells me I'm not vested enough in humans to appreciate it. She's probably right.