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Boswell As Biographer Post by :ibuyinvoices Category :Essays Author :Augustine Birrell Date :October 2011 Read :3397

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Boswell As Biographer

Boswell's position in English literature cannot be disputed, nor can he ever be displaced from it. He has written our greatest biography. That is all. Theorize about it as much as you like, account for it how you may, the fact remains. 'Alone I did it.' There has been plenty of theorizing. Lord Macaulay took the subject in hand and tossed it up and down for half a dozen pages with a gusto that drove home to many minds the conviction, the strange conviction, that our greatest biography was written by one of the very smallest men that ever lived, 'a man of the meanest and feeblest intellect'--by a dunce, a parasite, and a coxcomb; by one 'who, if he had not been a great fool, would never have been a great writer.' So far Macaulay, anno Domini 1831, in the vigorous pages of the Edinburgh Review. A year later appears in Fraser's Magazine another theory by another hand, not then famous, Mr. Thomas Carlyle. I own to an inordinate affection for Mr. Carlyle as 'literary critic' As philosopher and sage, he has served our turn. We have had the fortune, good or bad, to outlive him; and our sad experience is that death makes a mighty difference to all but the very greatest. The sight of the author of Sartor Resartus in a Chelsea omnibus, the sound of Dr. Newman's voice preaching to a small congregation in Birmingham, kept alive in our minds the vision of their greatness--it seemed then as if that greatness could know no limit; but no sooner had they gone away, than somehow or another one became conscious of some deficiency in their intellectual positions--the tide of human thought rushed visibly by them, and it became plain that to no other generation would either of these men be what they had been to their own. But Mr. Carlyle as literary critic has a tenacious grasp, and Boswell was a subject made for his hand. 'Your Scottish laird, says an English naturalist of those days, may be defined as the hungriest and vainest of all bipeds yet known.' Carlyle knew the type well enough. His general description of Boswell is savage:

'Boswell was a person whose mean or bad qualities lay open to the general eye, visible, palpable to the dullest. His good qualities, again, belonged not to the time he lived in; were far from common then; indeed, in such a degree were almost unexampled; not recognisable, therefore, by everyone; nay, apt even, so strange had they grown, to be confounded with the very vices they lay contiguous to and had sprung out of. That he was a wine-bibber and good liver, gluttonously fond of whatever would yield him a little solacement, were it only of a stomachic character, is undeniable enough. That he was vain, heedless, a babbler, had much of the sycophant, alternating with the braggadocio, curiously spiced, too, with an all-pervading dash of the coxcomb; that he gloried much when the tailor by a court suit had made a new man of him; that he appeared at the Shakespeare Jubilee with a riband imprinted "Corsica Boswell" round his hat, and, in short, if you will, lived no day of his life without saying and doing more than one pretentious ineptitude, all this unhappily is evident as the sun at noon. The very look of Boswell seems to have signified so much. In that cocked nose, cocked partly in triumph over his weaker fellow-creatures, partly to snuff up the smell of coming pleasure and scent it from afar, in those big cheeks, hanging like half-filled wine-skins, still able to contain more, in that coarsely-protruded shelf mouth, that fat dew-lapped chin; in all this who sees not sensuality, pretension, boisterous imbecility enough? The underpart of Boswell's face is of a low, almost brutish character.'

This is character-painting with a vengeance. Portrait of a Scotch laird by the son of a Scotch peasant. Carlyle's Boswell is to me the very man. If so, Carlyle's paradox seems as great as Macaulay's, for though Carlyle does not call Boswell a great fool in plain set terms, he goes very near it. But he keeps open a door through which he effects his escape. Carlyle sees in Bozzy 'the old reverent feeling of discipleship, in a word, hero-worship.'

'How the babbling Bozzy, inspired only by love and the recognition and vision which love can lend, epitomizes nightly the words of Wisdom, the deeds and aspects of Wisdom, and so, little by little, unconsciously works together for us a whole "Johnsoniad"--a more free, perfect, sunlit and spirit-speaking likeness than for many centuries has been drawn by man of man.'

This I think is a little overdrawn. That Boswell loved Johnson, God forbid I should deny. But that he was inspired only by love to write his life, I gravely question. Boswell was, as Carlyle has said, a greedy man--and especially was he greedy of fame--and he saw in his revered friend a splendid subject for artistic biographic treatment. Here is where both Macaulay and Carlyle are, as I suggest, wrong. Boswell was a fool, but only in the sense in which hundreds of great artists have been fools; on his own lines, and across his own bit of country, he was no fool. He did not accidentally stumble across success, but he deliberately aimed at what he hit. Read his preface and you will discover his method. He was as much an artist as either of his two famous critics. Where Carlyle goes astray is in attributing to discipleship what was mainly due to a dramatic sense. However, theories are no great matter.

Our means of knowledge of James Boswell are derived mainly from himself; he is his own incriminator. In addition to the life there is the Corsican tour, the Hebrides tour, the letters to Erskine and to Temple, and a few insignificant occasional publications in the shape of letters to the people of Scotland, etc. With these before him it is impossible for any biographer to approach Bozzy in a devotional attitude; he was all Carlyle calls him. Our sympathies are with his father, who despised him, and with his son, who was ashamed of him. It is indeed strange to think of him staggering, like the drunkard he was, between these two respectable and even stately figures--the Senator of the Court of Justice and the courtly scholar and antiquary. And yet it is to the drunkard humanity is debtor. Respectability is not everything.

Boswell had many literary projects and ambitions, and never intended to be known merely as the biographer of Johnson. He proposed to write a life of Lord Kames and to compose memoirs of Hume. It seems he did write a life of Sir Robert Sibbald. He had other plans in his head, but dissipation and a steadily increasing drunkenness destroyed them all. As inveterate book-hunter, I confess to a great fancy to lay hands on his Dorando: A Spanish Tale, a shilling book published in Edinburgh during the progress of the once famous Douglas case, and ordered to be suppressed as contempt of court after it had been through three editions. It is said, probably hastily, that no copy is known to exist--a dreary fate which, according to Lord Macaulay, might have attended upon the Life of Johnson had the copyright of that work become the property of Boswell's son, who hated to hear it mentioned. It is not, however, very easy to get rid of any book once it is published, and I do not despair of reading Dorando before I die.


(The end)
Augustine Birrell's essay: Boswell As Biographer

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