When the Worst Man in the World Writes a Masterpiece
Boswell's Life of Johnson is not just one of my favorite books, it also engendered some of my favorite book reviews. While praise for the work is universal, the main question commentators try to answer is this: how did the worst man in the world manage to write the best biography?
Who was James Boswell? He was a perpetual drunk, a degenerate gambler, a sex addict, whoremonger, exhibitionist, and rapist. He gave his wife an STD he caught from a prostitute.
Selfish, servile and self-indulgent, lazy and lecherous, vain, proud, obsessed with his aristocratic status, yet with no sense of propriety whatsoever, he frequently fantasized about the feudal affection of serfs for their lords. He loved to watch executions and was a proud supporter of slavery.
“Where ordinary bad taste leaves off,” John Wain comments, “Boswell began.” The Thrales were long-time friends and patrons of Johnson; a single day after Henry Thrale died, Boswell wrote a poem fantasizing about the elderly Johnson and the just-widowed Hester: "Convuls'd in love's tumultuous throws, / We feel the aphrodisian spasm". The rest of his verse is of a similar quality; naturally he considered himself a great poet.
Boswell combined his terrible behavior with a complete lack of shame, faithfully reporting every transgression, every moronic ejaculation, every faux pas. The first time he visited London he went to see a play and, as he happily tells us himself, he "entertained the audience prodigiously by imitating the lowing of a cow."
By all accounts, including his own, he was an idiot. On a tour of Europe, his tutor said to him: "of young men who have studied I have never found one who had so few ideas as you."
As a lawyer he was a perpetual failure, especially when he couldn't get Johnson to write his arguments for him. As a politician he didn't even get the chance to be a failure despite decades of trying.
His correspondence with Johnson mostly consists of Boswell whining pathetically and Johnson telling him to get his shit together.
He commissioned a portrait from his friend Joshua Reynolds and stiffed him on the payment. His descendants hid the portrait in the attic because they were ashamed of being related to him.
Desperate for fame, he kept trying to attach himself to important people, mostly through sycophancy. In Geneva he pestered Rousseau,1 leading to this conversation:
Rousseau: You are irksome to me. It’s my nature. I cannot help it.
Boswell: Do not stand on ceremony with me.
Rousseau: Go away.
Later, Boswell was given the task of escorting Rousseau's mistress Thérèse Le Vasseur to England—they had an affair on the way.
When Adam Smith and Edward Gibbon were elected to The Literary Club, Boswell considered leaving because he thought the club had now "lost its select merit"!
On the positive side, his humor and whimsy made for good conversation; he put people at ease; he gave his children all the love his own father had denied him; and, somehow, he wrote one of the great works of English literature.
The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. was an instant sensation. While the works of Johnson were quickly forgotten,2 his biography has never been out of print in the 229 years since its initial publication. It went through 41 editions just in the 19th century.
Burke told King George III that he had never read anything more entertaining. Coleridge said "it is impossible not to be amused with such a book." George Bernard Shaw compared Boswell's dramatization of Johnson to Plato's dramatization of Socrates, and placed old Bozzy in the middle of an "apostolic succession of dramatists" from the Greek tragedians through Shakespeare and ending, of course, with Shaw himself.
It is a strange work, an experimental collage of different modes: part traditional biography, part collection of letters, and part direct reports of Johnson's life as observed by Boswell.3 His inspiration came not from literature, but from the minute naturalistic detail of Flemish paintings. It is difficult to convey its greatness in compressed form: Boswell is not a great writer at the sentence level, and all the famous quotes are (hilarious) Johnsonian bon mots. The book succeeds through a cumulative effect.
Johnson was 54 years old when he first met Boswell, and most of his major accomplishments (the poetry, the dictionary, The Rambler) were behind him; his wife had already died; he was already the recipient of a £300 pension from the King; his edition of Shakespeare was almost complete. All in all they spent no more than 400 days together. Boswell had limited material to work with, but what he doesn't capture in fact, he captures in feeling: an entire life is contained in this book: love and friendship, taverns and work, the glory of success and recognition, the depressive bouts of failure and penury, the inevitable tortures of aging and death.
Out of a person, Boswell created a literary personality. His powers of characterization are positively Shakespearean, and his Johnson resembles none other but the bard's greatest creation: Sir John Falstaff. Big, brash, and deeply flawed, but also lovable. He would "laugh like a rhinoceros":
Johnson could not stop his merriment, but continued it all the way till he got without the Temple-gate. He then burst into such a fit of laughter that he appeared to be almost in a convulsion; and in order to support himself, laid hold of one of the posts at the side of the foot pavement, and sent forth peals so loud, that in the silence of the night his voice seemed to resound from Temple-bar to Fleet ditch.
And around Johnson he painted an entire dramatic cast, bringing 18th century London to life: Garrick the great actor, Reynolds the painter, Beauclerk with his banter, Goldsmith with his insecurities. Monboddo and Burke, Henry and Hester Thrale, the blind Mrs Williams and the Jamaican freedman Francis Barber.
Borges (who was also a big fan) finds his parallels not in Shakespeare and Falstaff, but in Cervantes and Don Quixote. He (rather implausibly) suggests that every Quixote needs his Sancho, and "Boswell appears as a despicable character" deliberately to create a contrast.4
And in the 1830s, two brilliant and influential reviews were written by two polar opposites: arch-progressive Thomas Babington Macaulay and radical reactionary Thomas Carlyle. The first thing you'll notice is their sheer magnitude: Macaulay's is 55 pages long, while Carlyle's review in Fraser's Magazine reaches 74 pages!5 And while they both agree that it's a great book and that Boswell was a scoundrel, they have very different theories about what happened.
Never in history, Macaulay says, has there been "so strange a phænomenon as this book". On the one hand he has effusive praise:
Homer is not more decidedly the first of heroic poets, Shakspeare is not more decidedly the first of dramatists, Demosthenes is not more decidedly the first of orators, than Boswell is the first of biographers. He has no second. He has distanced all his competitors so decidedly that it is not worth while to place them.
On the other hand, he spends several paragraphs laying into Boswell with gusto:
He was, if we are to give any credit to his own account or to the united testimony of all who knew him, a man of the meanest and feeblest intellect. [...] He was the laughing-stock of the whole of that brilliant society which has owed to him the greater part of its fame. He was always laying himself at the feet of some eminent man, and begging to be spit upon and trampled upon. [...] Servile and impertinent, shallow and pedantic, a bigot and a sot, bloated with family pride, and eternally blustering about the dignity of a born gentleman, yet stooping to be a talebearer, an eavesdropper, a common butt in the taverns of London.
Macaulay's theory is that while Homer and Shakespeare and all the other greats owe their eminence to their virtues, Boswell is unique in that he owes his success to his vices.
He was a slave, proud of his servitude, a Paul Pry, convinced that his own curiosity and garrulity were virtues, an unsafe companion who never scrupled to repay the most liberal hospitality by the basest violation of confidence, a man without delicacy, without shame, without sense enough to know when he was hurting the feelings of others or when he was exposing himself to derision; and because he was all this, he has, in an important department of literature, immeasurably surpassed such writers as Tacitus, Clarendon, Alfieri, and his own idol Johnson.
Of the talents which ordinarily raise men to eminence as writers, Boswell had absolutely none. There is not in all his books a single remark of his own on literature, politics, religion, or society, which is not either commonplace or absurd. [...] Logic, eloquence, wit, taste, all those things which are generally considered as making a book valuable, were utterly wanting to him. He had, indeed, a quick observation and a retentive memory. These qualities, if he had been a man of sense and virtue, would scarcely of themselves have sufficed to make him conspicuous; but, because he was a dunce, a parasite, and a coxcomb, they have made him immortal.
The work succeeds partly because of its subject: if Johnson had not been so extraordinary, then airing all his dirty laundry would have just made him look bad.
No man, surely, ever published such stories respecting persons whom he professed to love and revere. He would infallibly have made his hero as contemptible as he has made himself, had not his hero really possessed some moral and intellectual qualities of a very high order. The best proof that Johnson was really an extraordinary man is that his character, instead of being degraded, has, on the whole, been decidedly raised by a work in which all his vices and weaknesses are exposed.
And finally, Boswell provided Johnson with a curious form of literary fame:
The reputation of [Johnson's] writings, which he probably expected to be immortal, is every day fading; while those peculiarities of manner and that careless table-talk the memory of which, he probably thought, would die with him, are likely to be remembered as long as the English language is spoken in any quarter of the globe.
Carlyle rates Johnson's biography as the greatest work of the 18th century. In a sublime passage that brings tears to my eyes, he credits the Life with the power of halting the inexorable passage of time:
Rough Samuel and sleek wheedling James were, and are not. [...] The Bottles they drank out of are all broken, the Chairs they sat on all rotted and burnt; the very Knives and Forks they ate with have rusted to the heart, and become brown oxide of iron, and mingled with the indiscriminate clay. All, all has vanished; in every deed and truth, like that baseless fabric of Prospero's air-vision. Of the Mitre Tavern nothing but the bare walls remain there: of London, of England, of the World, nothing but the bare walls remain; and these also decaying (were they of adamant), only slower. The mysterious River of Existence rushes on: a new Billow thereof has arrived, and lashes wildly as ever round the old embankments; but the former Billow with its loud, mad eddyings, where is it? Where! Now this Book of Boswell's, this is precisely a revocation of the edict of Destiny; so that Time shall not utterly, not so soon by several centuries, have dominion over us. A little row of Naphtha-lamps, with its line of Naphtha-light, burns clear and holy through the dead Night of the Past: they who are gone are still here; though hidden they are revealed, though dead they yet speak. There it shines, that little miraculously lamplit Pathway; shedding its feebler and feebler twilight into the boundless dark Oblivion, for all that our Johnson touched has become illuminated for us: on which miraculous little Pathway we can still travel, and see wonders.
Carlyle disagrees completely with Macaulay: it is not because of his vices that Boswell could write this book, but rather because he managed to overcome them. He sees in Boswell a hopeful symbol for humanity as a whole, a victory in the war between the base and the divine in our souls.
In fact, the so copious terrestrial dross that welters chaotically, as the outer sphere of this man's character, does but render for us more remarkable, more touching, the celestial spark of goodness, of light, and Reverence for Wisdom, which dwelt in the interior, and could struggle through such encumbrances, and in some degree illuminate and beautify them.
Boswell's shortcomings were visible: he was "vain, heedless, a babbler". But if that was the whole story, would he really have chosen Johnson? He could have picked more illustrious targets, richer ones, perhaps some powerful statesman or an aristocrat with a distinguished lineage. "Doubtless the man was laughed at, and often heard himself laughed at for his Johnsonism". Boswell must have been attracted to Johnson by nobler motives. And to do that he would have to "hurl mountains of impediment aside" in order to overcome his nature.
The plate-licker and wine-bibber dives into Bolt Court, to sip muddy coffee with a cynical old man, and a sour-tempered blind old woman (feeling the cups, whether they are full, with her finger); and patiently endures contradictions without end; too happy so he may but be allowed to listen and live.
The Life is not great because of Boswell's foolishness, but because of his love and his admiration, an admiration that Macaulay considered a disease. Boswell wrote that in Johnson's company he "felt elevated as if brought into another state of being".
His sneaking sycophancies, his greediness and forwardness, whatever was bestial and earthy in him, are so many blemishes in his Book, which still disturb us in its clearness; wholly hindrances, not helps. Towards Johnson, however, his feeling was not Sycophancy, which is the lowest, but Reverence, which is the highest of human feelings.
On Johnson's personality, Carlyle writes: "seldom, for any man, has the contrast between the ethereal heavenward side of things, and the dark sordid earthward, been more glaring". And this is what Johnson wrote about Falstaff in his Shakespeare commentary:
Falstaff is a character loaded with faults, and with those faults which naturally produce contempt. [...] the man thus corrupt, thus despicable, makes himself necessary to the prince that despises him, by the most pleasing of all qualities, perpetual gaiety, by an unfailing power of exciting laughter, which is the more freely indulged, as his wit is not of the splendid or ambitious kind, but consists in easy escapes and sallies of levity, which make sport but raise no envy.
Johnson obviously enjoyed the comparison to Falstaff, but would it be crazy to also see Boswell in there? The Johnson presented to us in the Life is a man who had to overcome poverty, disease, depression, and a constant fear of death, but never let those things poison his character. Perhaps Boswell crafted the character he wished he could become: Johnson was his Beatrice—a dream, an aspiration, an ideal outside his grasp that nonetheless thrust him toward greatness. Through a process of self-overcoming Boswell wrote a great book on self-overcoming.
The story of Boswell is basically the plot of Amadeus, with the role of Salieri being played by Macaulay, by Carlyle, by me, and—perhaps even by yourself, dear reader. The line between admiration, envy, and resentment is thin, and crossing it is easier when the subject is a scoundrel. But if Bozzy could set aside resentment for genuine reverence, perhaps there is hope for us all. And yet...it would be an error to see in Boswell the Platonic Form of Mankind.
Shaffer and Forman's film portrays Mozart as vulgar, arrogant, a womanizer, bad with money—but, like Bozzy, still somehow quite likable. In one of the best scenes of the film, we see Mozart transform the screeching of his mother-in-law into the Queen of the Night Aria; thus Boswell transformed his embarrassments into literary gold. He may be vulgar, but his productions are not. He may be vulgar, but he is not ordinary.
Perhaps it is in vain that we seek correlations among virtues and talents: perhaps genius is ineffable. Perhaps it's Ramanujans all the way down. You can't even say that genius goes with independence: there's nothing Boswell wanted more than social approval. I won't tire you with clichés about the Margulises and the Musks.
Would Johnson have guessed that he would be the mediocrity, and Bozzy the genius? Would he have felt envy and resentment? What would he say, had he been given the chance to read in Carlyle that Johnson's own writings "are becoming obsolete for this generation; and for some future generation may be valuable chiefly as Prolegomena and expository Scholia to this Johnsoniad of Boswell"?
If you want to read The Life of Johnson, I recommend a second-hand copy of the Everyman's Library edition: cheap, reasonably sized, and the paper & binding are great.
- 1.In the very first letter Boswell wrote to Rousseau, he described himself as "a man of singular merit". ↩
- 2.They were "rediscovered" in the early 1900s. ↩
- 3.While some are quick to dismiss the non-direct parts, I think they're necessary, especially the letters which illuminate a different side of Johnson's character. ↩
- 4.Lecture #10 in Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature. ↩
- 5.What happened to the novella-length book review? Anyway, many of those pages are taken up by criticism of John Wilson Croker's incompetent editorial efforts. ↩