Boswell’s Presumptuous Task

I really, really enjoyed this book — I enjoyed it because I’m fascinated by Boswell and Johnson, but also because it’s a book that has so many interesting things to say about eighteenth-century culture (I wrote about Boswell and 18C biography here). The book gives a brief overview of Boswell’s life up until the time he began to write the biography, and then it delves into Boswell’s process of researching and writing, and into the reception of the book once it was published.

One of the things I enjoyed most was learning a bit more about Boswell’s character and reputation — I knew already that he was a popular, amusing guy, prone to self-criticism and depression, who longed to be a success in London (and failed), and who was heavy drinker and a frequent visitor of prostitutes, going through agonies of temptation, indulgence, and guilt. But I learned that he had a reputation for being indiscreet and for saying exactly the wrong thing at the wrong time, for publishing personal details about others so that one never knew what might end up in print, for being, as Sisman says, “a fool in so many ways.” He was the kind of person who would say (or print) something outrageous and then wonder why everybody looked embarrassed. He loved London so much he moved there from Scotland even when he didn’t have the money to do so and was endangering his wife’s health because of the bad city air. He lived on foolish hopes and ambitions and could be counted on to make exactly the wrong decision.

This reputation haunted him after his death; Sisman talks about how many readers of Boswell in the 19C saw him as merely a note-taker, a Johnson-worshiper who followed him everywhere copying down what he said as he said it, a man who lucked into writing a masterpiece. He was just a person in the right place in the right time with the right habit of recording everything. It took the discovery of drafts of Boswell’s books, his letters, and his journals to correct this impression. Now a more common view is that Boswell carefully shaped and crafted his stories about Johnson, that he is talented in his own right, not merely a recorder of Johnson’s talent.

One of the other pleasures of this book is reading about what happened to Boswell’s papers, his letters and journals and book drafts, after his death and on into the present day. Because of his slightly ridiculous reputation, Boswell’s descendants were embarrassed by him, and resisted scholars’ efforts to find and publish his work. Sisman tells the story — quite thrilling at times — of how, all throughout the 20C, various people came across the many, many stashes of papers Boswell left behind and fought with the descendants and with each other to be the ones to collect all the material and to put out the definitive edition of Boswell’s writing.

It’s fascinating to study what happens to an author’s reputation and the artifacts he or she leaves behind; a writer’s reputation can get shaped by uncontrollable things like what papers get found when and what critic decides to write an appreciation or a condemnation and when that critic decides to do it. Boswell’s reputation was almost irreparably hurt by damning things the historian Thomas Babington Macaulay wrote about him in the 1830s, and was greatly enhanced by the discovery of his papers a century later.  It’s a lesson in the futility of trying to control what people say about you after death — they may say things that would shock you, could you know about them.

3 Comments

Filed under Books, Nonfiction

3 responses to “Boswell’s Presumptuous Task

  1. This sounds like a fun and interesting a book. I was perusing my lenghty TBR list the other day and discover I have had it on my list for some time now. Now that it is no longer forgotten, perhaps I manage to get a copy and read it. Do you think it is best to read Life of Johnson before reading this book?

  2. That’s a tough question. I think you can read Sisman’s book without having read the Life, but it really does add something to know what the book is like. The problem, though, is that if you feel like you need to read the Life first, it might take a while to get around to the Sisman book! And it really is worth reading. It will make you want to pick up the Life if you haven’t already.

  3. Boswell almost sounds more interesting now than Johnson! What a life–there is something nicely human about him–as strange as that sounds! It is interesting how people can form a life of from someone’s detritus (sorry–I love that word)after they’ve gone!

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