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"If he had not been a great fool, he would never have been a great writer." Macaulay's judgment of Boswell is as famous as it is wrong-headed. A man who was only a fool could never have written a book as great as Boswell's Life of Johnson.

Peter Martin, author of a recent biography of Johnson, and before that of an admirable one of Boswell, judged more wisely when he called Boswell's Life "a huge artistic achievement of narrative skill, memory and persistence". Macaulay was carried away by his love of dramatic contrast. He recognised the greatness of the book and saw that Boswell was often silly and absurd, yoked the two perceptions together, and concluded that the second made the first possible. 

It is undeniable that Boswell was an exhibitionist who sometimes made a fool of himself. His first hero was the Corsican patriot General Paoli, and his championing of the islanders' cause generous and sincere. Yet it was absurd to appear at the theatre in Stratford wearing a hatband that proclaimed him to be "Corsican Boswell". Nevertheless Macaulay's dismissal of him was equally ridiculous. If Boswell had been only the great fool of Macaulay's imagining, it is inconceivable that Johnson, whose toleration of fools and foolishness was very limited, would have welcomed his companionship and treated him as a close friend, and even as the son he never had.

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