The most celebrated biography in the English language, the standard for judging subsequent biographies, was published on this day (May 16) in 1791.
Dr. Johnson had died seven years earlier (in 1784); three biographies had appeared already, but the reading public awaited a definitive portrait of the great lexicographer and moralist. James Boswell — the young Scots lawyer who had shadowed Johnson and hung on and apparently recorded his every word — was the man to provide it. For his part Boswell was determined to break the hagiographic model which had hitherto imprisoned biography; not for him the panegyric to an idealized hero or saint, rather a flesh-and-blood, warts-and-all recounting of a fascinating life.
Boswell came into the picture fairly late in Johnson's life — when Boswell was 22 and Johnson was already 53. Boswell was a restless, upstart Scot, son of a judge who nearly disowned him; Johnson was the acclaimed author of poems (notably London and The Vanity of Human Wishes), the Rambler and Idler essays, and the magisterial Dictionary of the English Language. Growing up in Scotland, Boswell had lionized Johnson; now in London he sought to make his acquaintance.
It was on May 16, 1763, at about seven in the evening, when the opportunity arose. Boswell was sitting in the rear of Tom Davies bookshop in Russell Street, just off Covent Garden market, when a shadow darkened the glass front door and Davies turned to Boswell and said: "Look, Sir, it comes." Davies then introduced Boswell to Johnson, adding mischievously that Boswell was "the gentleman from Scotland." Knowing of Johnson's supposed antipathy to Scots, Boswell stammered out: "I do indeed, Sir, come from Scotland, but I cannot help it"; "That, Sir," Johnson replied, "I find is what a very great many of your fellow countrymen cannot help."
Notwithstanding this put down, conversation continued and Johnson grumbled that his boyhood friend, now the celebrated actor/director David Garrick, had neglected to send him a complimentary ticket to an opening night. Again, Boswell chanced his arm: "O Sir, I cannot think that Garrick would grudge such a trifle to you." Too cheeky by half, Johnson again smacked Boswell down: "Sir, I have known David Garrick longer than you have done: and I know no right you have to talk to me on this subject." Somehow Boswell recovered and maintained his conversational footing; Johnson stayed talking for three hours. When Davies finally escorted Johnson from the shop, Boswell complained of some of the hits he had taken, but Davies said: "I can see he likes you very well."
A day or two later Boswell called on Johnson, resolved "to visit the Lion in his den." He was courteously received and when two hours later rose to go, Johnson prevailed on him to stay and talk longer. When Boswell slyly reminded Johnson of the verbal blows at their first meeting, Johnson said: "Poh, poh — never mind these things. Come to me as often as you can. I shall be glad to see you."
Although Boswell had begun keeping a diary before he left Scotland, it was at Johnson's urging that he now devoted attention to his daily journal. In an unprecedented way, Boswell recorded everything: what he ate, where he went; but above all, he recorded everything Johnson said. Boswell wrote that he wanted nothing about his own life to be secret, and little was. It was as though Boswell came to believe that until he recorded something, he could not persuade himself it had happened. The Yale University edition of Boswell's journals runs to 13 volumes. This was the archive from which he constructed The Life of Johnson.
"Mr. Boswell was never in anybody's company who did not wish to see him again," Johnson once remarked. Boswell's liveliness, gaiety, loyalty and insatiable curiosity insured him a welcome wherever he went. Through Johnson, he was introduced to the leading men of the time: Thomas Sheridan, David Hume, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Oliver Goldsmith, Adam Smith, David Garrick and others. Though Boswell's frequent indiscretions could be worrying, his charm and his standing in Johnson's esteem opened all doors.
Boswell saw Johnson for the last time on June 30, 1784, when they dined together at the home of Sir Joshua Reynolds. Johnson was now 75 and in declining health; when they left, Boswell rode with Johnson. As Johnson stepped down from the carriage at his lodgings, he called out: "Fare you well!" And "…without looking back [he] sprang away with a kind of pathetic briskness."
Johnson died on December 30, 1784. At his funeral in Westminster Abbey one seat was empty; Boswell was in Edinburgh and did not receive news of Johnson's death until it was too late to make the three-day trip to London. Almost immediately he set to work on what became his life's mission and enduring achievement: "To write the life of him who excelled all mankind in writing the lives of others."
Ian Hunter. "The gentleman from Scotland." National Post, (Canada) May 16, 2012.
Reprinted with permission of the National Post
Copyright © 2012 National Post
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