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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
James Boswell (1740–1795)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Charles Frederick Johnson (1836–1931)
JAMES BOSWELL was born in Ayrshire, Scotland. His family was of ancient origin and some social pretension, but the name derives its real distinction from him. He attended the University of Edinburgh and was admitted to the Scotch bar. He was, however, of a socially excitable and adventurous spirit, which impelled him out of the humdrum life of a petty Scotch laird into the broad currents of the world, and led him to attach himself to men of intellectual distinction. He was introduced to Dr. Johnson in 1763, and scrupulously sought his society till Johnson’s death, making at least nine journeys to London for the purpose, and recording his conversation with painstaking assiduity. To this enthusiastic industry we owe the ‘Life,’ published in 1791, a book allowed on all hands to fulfill the purpose of a biography, in giving an exact and lively picture of the central figure and of his environment better than any other ever written. Previous to this, Boswell had spent some time on the Continent, and, driven by the peculiar form of hero-worship which was his overmastering impulse, he visited Corsica and became intimate with Pascal Paoli, the patriot who freed the island from the Genoese, but was subsequently conquered by the French. In 1768 Boswell published ‘An Account of Corsica, Memoirs of Pascal Paoli, and a Journal of a Tour to the Island.’ Of this Johnson said, “The history is like other histories, but the journal is in a high degree delightful and curious.” Gray said the journal was “a dialogue between a green goose and a hero.”  1
  In 1773 Boswell was admitted a member of the famous “Literary Club,” and soon after persuaded Dr. Johnson to make a tour of the Hebrides, a journey at that time presenting almost as many difficulties as a trip to Labrador does now. His journal, a book quite as entertaining as the ‘Life,’ was not published till 1786, two years after Johnson’s death. As stated before, Boswell’s great book, the ‘Life,’ was published in 1791. The author also published a number of minor works which are not worth enumerating.  2
  The position of James Boswell as a classic author is as well established as it is unique. It depends entirely on the two books mentioned: ‘The Life of Dr. Samuel Johnson’ and the ‘Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides,’ which may be considered as one, and indeed were amalgamated into one in Croker’s edition. Further, the interest of these books depends more on the subject-matter than on the style. No books are better known than these, and none are buried deeper in oblivion than his other productions, with the possible exception of the Corsican journal. One is as obscure as the other is immortal, though from the artistic standpoint they do not differ greatly in literary merit. But it is not just to say that the value of Boswell’s ‘Life of Johnson’ depends entirely on the subject-matter. It depends rather on a happy relation or co-ordination between the subject and the author. In consequence, it is hardly possible to consider Boswell as a writer without some reference to Samuel Johnson. Not only is Johnson the central figure in the book, but in a sense he is a joint author of it. About one-third of the book is in Johnson’s words, and this third is decidedly the best part. Boswell’s reputation as a great writer is unique in that it depends upon greatness as an interviewer and reporter.  3
  Macaulay says, “If Boswell had not been a great fool he never would have been a great writer.” This is one of those paradoxical statements to which Macaulay likes to give a glittering plausibility. It is true that Boswell wrote a great book, and it is also true that in some regards he was what we are accustomed to designate as a fool; but to connect the two as cause and effect is like saying that a man was a great athlete because he was lame, or that Lord Byron had a beautiful face because he had a club-foot, or that Demosthenes was a great orator because he stammered. Men have been made by their foibles, but in those cases weakness in some directions has been more than compensated for by strength in others. Boswell lacked some of the great literary powers, but he possessed others, and those that he did possess happened to be precisely the ones necessary to the writer of the life of Samuel Johnson. Boswell had no imagination, no moral elevation, no decided wit or power of phrase, no deep insight, no invention. But he had one power which lies behind all great realistic literary work; and that is, observation. Johnson furnished the power of phrase, in which he was as eminent as any Englishman between Shakespeare and Charles Lamb. The higher powers are not needed in a transcript of fact. Boswell possessed too an eye for the externals which indicate character, and—a quality rare in the eighteenth century—absolute accuracy. Sir Joshua Reynolds said, “Every word of the ‘Life’ might be depended on as if it were given on oath.”  4
  It was this habit of painstaking accuracy, rather than good taste, which led him to avoid the vice of rhetorical amplification. It also prevented him from missing the point of a joke of which he was unconscious. As a rule, his ‘Johnsoniana’ are better than those of Sir John Hawkins or Mrs. Piozzi, because they are more literal. In one or two instances an embellishment which improved a story was rejected by him because it was not true. These powers—observation, scrupulous accuracy and industry, and enthusiastic admiration of his hero—were all that he needed for the production of a great book; for Dr. Johnson was so unaffected, so outspoken, and so entertaining a man, and every sentence he uttered was so characteristic, that realism was a far better method for his biographer than analysis. Perhaps it is always better when the subject is strongly marked. That Dr. Johnson was a good subject is so evident that the mere statement is sufficient. Mrs. Thrale-Piozzi’s and even Sir John Hawkins’s books are entertaining simply because they are about him.  5
  The eighteenth-century man presents a number of excellent features for literary portraiture, because he is a compound of formality and explosiveness. The formal manners and dress and ponderous courtesy of the eighteenth century, combined with an outspoken way of calling things by their right names and a boyish petulance and quickness of temper, make a contrast that is essentially humorous, and more attractive than the philosophic and broad-minded temper of earlier times or the reticence and indifference of our own day. Dr. Johnson was a typical eighteenth-century man, and epitomized these contrasts. Personally, too, he was a man for whom we must feel the most profound regard and respect. He represents the normal Englishman, a compound of moral integrity, rooted prejudice, and hatred of shams, with a mind which works mechanically and a kind heart. We instinctively recognize this compound as the ancestral type of our race, and are drawn to it. The real power of our race depends upon the simplicity and solid humanity of this central type, the heavy-armed and disciplined infantry about which are grouped the more gifted and erratic types, the scouts and light-horse of civilization. For these general reasons Samuel Johnson seems to us the best sitter for a literary portrait that ever fell into the hands of a literary painter, and the excellence of his biography to depend quite as much upon the fact that it is a life of Samuel Johnson as upon the fact that it is a life by James Boswell.  6
  Boswell’s private character is outside the question in a consideration of his writings. Macaulay calls him a drunkard. If this be true, it seems a little severe to call a Scotchman to account for being intoxicated one hundred years ago. He also speaks of him as a toady; but he was a friend of Johnson, whose detestation of sycophancy was a positive principle. Hume speaks of him as a “friend of mine, very good-humored, very agreeable, and very mad.” Macaulay’s and Carlyle’s essays may be considered as mutually corrective. The truth is that Boswell was absolutely frank, and if a man is frank about himself on paper he must write himself down a fool, unless he belongs to a higher type than Boswell or his critics.  7

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