Underrated: James Boswell

The biographer of Dr Johnson's gift to posterity was to establish the latter as one of English literature's towering figures

“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.

We today have an advantage denied to Macaulay. We may read the great Yale edition of Boswell’s journals and private papers. They show a man who was often wayward and ridiculous, who was selfish and self-indulgent, but who was also possessed of a keen intelligence and a remarkable capacity for self-examination. The journals fascinate because Boswell found himself to be as extraordinary and interesting as he found the world about him. He was certainly an eccentric, but his eccentricity lay chiefly in his inexhaustible appetite for life and for all possible varieties of experience. He suffered from melancholia and hypochondria, but he was also high-spirited and social. His zest for life was what Johnson loved in him.

Boswell’s public life was a failure. He had some success at the Scottish Bar, to which he had been called reluctantly, and was notable for the care and compassion he showed for poor and criminal clients. But he failed in his ambition to get into Parliament and suffered humiliation at the hands of the Earl of Lonsdale whom he had selected as his patron. He was an unfaithful husband, who yet retained the love of his wife; her death left him wretched. He sank into depression and drunkenness, from which he was rescued only by his dedication to the great work to which he had committed himself.  At odds with his own father, he was loved by his children and a host of friends, partly, I suspect, because his company was always enlivening. Certainly Johnson cherished him for this reason. 

All the failures of his career were wiped out by the achievement of The Life of Johnson. It is a book which is not only written with masterly art, apparent in the manipulation of mood and argument, but also one which is a remarkable study in virtue.

Boswell’s regard for Johnson was entirely to his credit. Many people were frightened by Johnson; others, like Horace Walpole, regarded him with disgust. The slovenly uncouth shambling figure, with his relish for goring his opponents in argument, was an unlikely hero for Boswell — young, intensely self-conscious and snobbish when they first met — to attach himself to. He did so because he recognised Johnson’s essential virtue, to which many were blind. Johnson appealed to the best in Boswell and Boswell was a better man for it.

Carlyle, who regarded him with as much contempt as Macaulay, nevertheless recognised this: “The fact of his reverence for Johnson will ever remain noteworthy. The foolish conceited Scotch laird … approaching in such awestruck fashion the great dusty irascible pedagogue in his mean garret … It is a genuine reverence for Excellence.”   

Fair enough, but there was excellence in Boswell too. Johnson was a formidable intellectual and a great writer, but he is little read and would, one suspects, be of interest only to dons and students of English literature, were it not for Boswell. He created Johnson as one of the great dramatic figures in our literature; he made him as alive as Falstaff or a character in Dickens. The biography is tender, loving, perceptive and also very funny. No other biographer has matched this achievement. Modern biographers have learned much more about Johnson’s early life than Boswell ever knew, and have filled in the gaps that he left; they have offered a different perspective on his history and achievement. Yet it is thanks to Boswell that Johnson lives. 

How extraordinary that some still echo Macaulay’s dismissive judgment and regard a great writer as a great fool. They recognise his book as great, but underrate the skill with which it is compiled; the art which conceals art. The author of the greatest biography in the language should instead be recognised as what he was: a great writer himself.

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