The Life of Johnson HTML version
Phillips Brooks once told the boys at Exeter that in reading biography three men meet
one another in close intimacy--the subject of the biography, the author, and the reader. Of
the three the most interesting is, of course, the man about whom the book is written. The
most privileged is the reader, who is thus allowed to live familiarly with an eminent man.
Least regarded of the three is the author. It is his part to introduce the others, and to
develop between them an acquaintance, perhaps a friendship, while he, though ever busy
and solicitous, withdraws into the background.
Some think that Boswell, in his Life of Johnson, did not sufficiently realize his duty of
self-effacement. He is too much in evidence, too bustling, too anxious that his own
opinion, though comparatively unimportant, should get a hearing. In general, Boswell's
faults are easily noticed, and have been too much talked about. He was morbid, restless,
self-conscious, vain, insinuating; and, poor fellow, he died a drunkard. But the essential
Boswell, the skilful and devoted artist, is almost unrecognized. As the creator of the Life
of Johnson he is almost as much effaced as is Homer in the Odyssey. He is indeed so
closely concealed that the reader suspects no art at all. Boswell's performance looks easy
enough--merely the more or less coherent stringing together of a mass of memoranda.
Nevertheless it was rare and difficult, as is the highest achievement in art. Boswell is
primarily the artist, and he has created one of the great masterpieces of the world.* He
created nothing else, though his head was continually filling itself with literary schemes
that came to nought. But into his Life of Johnson he poured all his artistic energies, as
Milton poured his into Paradise Lost, and Vergil his into the Aneid.
* Here I include his Journal of a Tour of the Hebrides as essentially a part of the Life.
The Journal of a Tour in Corsica is but a propaedeutic study.
First, Boswell had the industry and the devotion to his task of an artist. Twenty years and
more he labored in collecting his material. He speaks frankly of his methods. He recorded
the talk of Johnson and his associates partly by a rough shorthand of his own, partly by an
exceptional memory, which he carefully trained for this very purpose. 'O for shorthand to
take this down!' said he to Mrs. Thrale as they listened to Johnson; and she replied:
'You'll carry it all in your head; a long head is as good as shorthand.' Miss Hannah More
recalls a gay meeting at the Garricks', in Johnson's absence, when Boswell was bold
enough to match his skill with no other than Garrick himself in an imitation of Johnson.
Though Garrick was more successful in his Johnsonian recitation of poetry, Boswell won
in reproducing his familiar conversation. He lost no time in perfecting his notes both
mental and stenographic, and sat up many a night followed by a day of headache, to write
them in final form, that none of the freshness and glow might fade. The sheer labor of
this process, not to mention the difficulty, can be measured only by one who attempts a
similar feat. Let him try to report the best conversation of a lively evening, following its
course, preserving its point, differentiating sharply the traits of the participants, keeping
the style, idiom, and exact words of each. Let him reject all parts of it, however diverting,
of which the charm and force will evaporate with the occasion, and retain only that which