instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Sunday, August 08, 2010

What I did on my summer vacation

I recently finished reading James Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson. Johnson, if you don't know, was an Eighteenth Century English writer and literary critic, most famous for his Dictionary of the English Language; he also edited a collection of Shakespeare and The Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets.

Even if you've never heard of Johnson, you've probably run into a number of his sayings, e.g.:
  • "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel."
  • "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life."
  • "None but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money."
  • "Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully."
This last one I've seen occasionally used in arguments for the death penalty's good effect in prompting a wicked man to repent. Its wit was spoiled for me when I found out, in Boswell's Life, that Johnson was referring to a particular man who was, in historical fact, hanged in a fortnight. (Some people suspected Johnson wrote a speech William Dodd gave in his defense, since the speech seemed to be beyond Dodd's abilities. Johnson actually had written the speech, but wouldn't admit it while Dodd was alive without the latter's permission. The "concentrates his mind wonderfully" bit was a dodge.)

In person, Johnson was large, something of a slob, and he exhibited mannerisms and tics that have been interpreted as symptoms of Tourette's Syndrome. He was moody, loud, opinionated, hard of hearing -- and a brilliant impromptu debater who was more concerned with winning an argument than with which side he took (in conversation, at least; he was more careful when writing). Among those who knew him socially, he was often referred to as "the bear."

James Boswell, on the other hand, was a far less remarkable man. He'd be on any short list for the least remarkable author of a literary classic in the history of literary classics. The introductory note in my Modern Library edition refers to him as a "fool and tenacious interloper," and marvels at "the patience of Johnson and the rest in tolerating his company."

Still, he had sense enough to hitch his wagon to Johnson's star; he kept a detailed journal of much of their conversation and actively planned to write his famous friend's biography for years.

The book itself is a bit peculiar, not only because Boswell makes himself a principal character even though Johnson was 53 when they first met and Boswell (a Scottish lawyer) saw him for just a month or two each year.* A great deal of the book -- and there is a great deal of it; my copy comes in at 2,000 pages on the button -- involves someone no one's ever heard of asking Johnson for his opinion of someone no one's ever heard of, while Boswell states again and again (and again) that to the thinking reader no record of Johnson can be too trivial to record.

Boswell was mistaken.

Nevertheless, there's something very readable about it. Granted, it took me more than two years and a final, compulsive act of will to finish it. Still, the world of Eighteenth Century London, and its writers, politicians, booksellers, actors, painters, and poets, has a certain charm, and Boswell's supine worship of his subject -- though far too often too annoyingly expressed -- caused him to write a remarkable work of literature that, ironically, may well be better known and more highly regarded today than anything Johnson wrote himself.

The Life of Samuel Johnson is the result of a unique, and probably unrepeatable, combination of fascinating subject and dutiful observer. While I can't really recommend that anyone read it -- you'll probably know within a page or two whether to keep going -- I'd certainly say it's a fine book to have read. I've been tweeting short quotes and expect to blog one or two longer passages.

* The famous first words (note that Johnson was an enthusiastic bigot against everything non-English): BOSWELL: "Mr. Johnson, I do indeed come from Scotland, but I cannot help it." JOHNSON: "That, Sir, I find, is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help."