Thomas Rowlandson (1757-1827), Walking Up the High Street, Edinburgh (Picturesque Beauties of Boswell, Part the First), etching, 5/15/1786. From the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Johnson is on the left; Boswell, to the right.
From Henry Bemis Books' literary birthdays series, two wildly different lives now intertwined through time:
Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)
Poet, novelist, editor, essayist, critic, lexicographer
(unfinished portrait of Johnson, at 70, by James Barry, above)
Son of a bookseller, Samuel Johnson was an awkward, ungainly, strikingly unattractive man who, by sheer effort, made himself into one of the foremost men of letters in the English language.
He managed a year at Pembroke College, Oxford, but when his funds ran out he left without a degree and walked to London with his friend, the actor David Garrick. He made a hand-to-mouth living as a journalist and writer, but it was a threadbare existence.
Royalties and copyright protections were unknown; the first real British copyright and author’s rights law was passed when Johnson was a young man. You got paid a flat fee for your work and if it sold really well, your publisher made the money. If others pirated it, they made money. Printers held the monopoly on what people read.
Having married a widow much his senior, he enjoyed a happy life with her before she died in 1752. In between writing gigs, he tried his hand at school teaching, but without a degree it was hard going getting a headship.
He applied for an honorary MA from Oxford in 1738; they turned him down flat. He pulled his few strings to reach Jonathan Swift, hoping to get an honorary degree from Trinity College, Dublin he could bring back to Oxford. Swift did nothing.
From 1746 to 1755 he toiled on a great project: a dictionary of the English language, demonstrating the evolution of word meaning with examples drawn from literature. Once finished, the dictionary was a critical success but, priced at nearly $550 in today's money, it took years to turn a profit.
“When it was done”, The Writer’s Almanac notes, “the Dictionary of the English Language had over 42,773 entries and was 20 inches wide when opened. It weighed almost 21 pounds and was one of the largest books ever printed. Samuel Johnson pronounced it ‘Vasta mole superbus (Proud in its great bulk).’”
His advance for the Dictionary long spent (in his anger over a patron’s forgotten promise of support, he wrote one of history’s most famous letters, to Lord Chesterfield), Johnson launched a broadsheet, The Rambler, for which he wrote nearly all the copy, between 1750 and 1752.
He was imprisoned for debt twice after the dictionary came out, but as its significance be more fully appreciated, his fortunes began to turn. Oxford granted him its honorary MA in 1755; he became the “Doctor Johnson” of legend after his alma mater gave him the higher degree in 1765.
In 1762 the King granted his a life pension of 300 pounds a year, which eased the constant need to produce. Still, he launched two more periodicals, The Literary Magazine (1756-58) and The Idler (1758-60); published a philosophical novel, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia- still in print- in 1759; after ten years’ labor, an edition of Shakespeare’s plays in 1765; a survey of the great poets of Britain in 1781.
He ghost-wrote years of parliamentary debates so compelling they were taken as verbatim transcripts; sermons, law lectures for a friend who landed an Oxford professorship he wasn’t really up to; and political tracts. As one profile observed of Johnson’s legendary bad luck,
He even wrote a play, Irene, which had a successful run (1749), but was never performed anywhere, ever again, until 1999, making it the most unsuccessful play ever written by a major author.
Johnson, his his part, was more practical. “No man but a blockhead,” he famously observed, “ever wrote, but for money.”
Johnson never forgot his humble origins; having for years felt guilty for refusing to man his father’s book stall because he thought he had outgrown that sort of thing, he returned to the spot, an adult, and stood in the rain for a day, jeered by passersby, as penance.
In his old age he accumulated a menagerie of eccentric live-in companions: Mrs. Desmoulins, his godfather’s widowed daughter; Anna Williams, a blind poet who ruled the house; Dr. Levet, a quack; Poll Carmichael, a streetwalker, and his personal servant, a Jamaican called Francis Barber- a slave freed at 12 when his master died- to whom Johnson left his estate. He spent rowdy nights in the streets with a troubled, oft-jailed poet, Richard Savage, whose life Johnson rescued from obscurity with a biography.
Johnson would have died a significant figure in British literary history on the strength of his work and his fortuitous friendships: Edmund Burke, Joshua Reynolds, David Garrick, Oliver Goldsmith, Edward Gibbon, and Adam Smith are among their number in the famous dining club he started to relieve his being widowed. But his name endures the world ‘round because a spoiled 22- year-old Scotsman, James Boswell, contrived to meet all the great men of London.
At their first meeting, in a bookseller’s, Johnson brushed him off in his usual gruff manner, but something clicked, and “Bozzy” was one of Johnson’s closest companions for the rest of the old man’s life.
The degree of familiarity Johnson gave the young fop startled and irked his friends: Boswell rifled through Johnson’s diaries and papers when the old man was out, and so assiduously recorded Johnson’s words and activities even his subject remarked “one might have thought he was hired to spy on me.”
One reviewer recalls, “People wanted to keep their distance from Boswell, fearing that he might record even their most off-hand comments.”
Boswell’s Life of Johnson, published in 1791, transformed the art of biography and brought to life the day to day world in which Johnson lived. Boswell captures his friend’s humor as well as his tendency to be the last word on every subject (second marriages, he said, were the triumph of hope over experience; in a discussion of Bishop Berkeley’s theory that existence is but perception, he kicked a large stone; his foot recoiling, he declared, “I refute it thus!”).
Generally considered a wastrel, an idiot and a womanizer (his constant VD cures make terrifying reading his his journals), Boswell had this one great thing in him, the like of which has proven almost impossible to replicate:
Johnson himself was a biographer, but the point of his work was to use the subject to be an example, make a point, or serve as a moral example. In his biographical technique, Boswell wished to allow the subject to speak for himself, and this was the reason the reason why he was so assiduous in taking notes, checking facts, and replicating dialogue. Sisman demonstrates effectively in his study that we might never have such a biography again, given the close relationship between Boswell and Johnson for two decades, and Boswell's prodigious memory and dedication to copious note taking. Building the biography around scenes in Johnson's life required an accurate and detailed accounting of Johnson's words and conversations (otherwise it would be an exercise in fiction), and that is precisely what Boswell had available to him.
Johnson’s posthumous fame at the hands of Boswell has guaranteed the immortality of his work, and its accessibility has endured for generations. His constant struggles with procrastination and writer’s block, his self-doubt and endless self-criticism, often expressed in prayers and annual self-appraisals, are inspirations for the troubled in every age.
His prose style, with its long, balanced considerations of one thing, then another, and luminous critical insights, can be seen in the works of Winston Churchill (both of whom also referred to their bouts of depression as “the black dog”). The Yale standard edition of Johnson’s works, launched in 1958 and planned to end with nine volumes in 1960, is now on its thirtieth volume, sixty years on.
Late in life, Boswell persuaded Johnson to travel with him in the Scottish Highlands, hoping to show off his homeland and ease some of the Doctor’s standard-issue Tory prejudices toward the Scots. In one tavern, a barmaid, on a bet, plopped into the surprised Johnson’s lap and planted a big kiss on his famously ugly face. “Pray, do it again,” Johnson exclaimed, “and let us see who tires of it first.”
His last years were troubled. His household members died, one by one; his health failed; his last patrons, the Thrales- a wealthy couple who pampered him endlessly at their country place- went broke, and Mrs Thrale remarried- in Johnson’s view- badly. He died in December 1784, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. Mrs Thrale was jealous of Boswell; her copy of the Life has been republished in facsimile, with her irritated comments in the margins of every page.
James Boswell (1740-1795)
Author, diarist, lawyer
Born to a chilly Scots judge and his equally distant wife, Jamie Boswell was torn, all his life, between the Calvinist rectitude expected of him and an unquenchable desire to be The Enlightenment’s first great fanboy.
He was very bright, but his intelligence tended to be canceled out by an unrelenting silly streak. The tension expressed itself, in his youth, through odd nervous disorders that cleared up once he got to university and- at least a little- out from under his father’s icy thumb.
He entered Edinburgh University at thirteen, and studied five years before transferring to the university at Glasgow. Already having discovered he was catnip to women, Boswell seems to have decided the thing to keep him on the straight and narrow was to convert to Catholicism and take holy orders.
Emulating St. Augustine (“Lord make me chaste, but not yet”), Boswell hied himself to London for a last fling that was great fun until his funds ran out. Yanked back to Edinburgh by the Laird of Auchinleck, he was forced to sign away most of his inheritance in return for an annual allowance of a hundred pounds.
He passed his first set of law exams, and cut such a mark of distinction that his father doubled his allowance and let him return to London. Boswell, who had set his cap to meet and befriend all the great men of his time, contrived an introduction to Samuel Johnson on May 16, 1763, at a bookshop.
Though finding Boswell- thirty years his junior- bumptious at first, Johnson warmed to the young man, and they corresponded frequently after Boswell sailed for Utrecht. There he continued his legal studies and amorous affairs with equal vigor, and there, he conjured his plan for a Grand Tour of Europe:
I shall make the tour of The Netherlands, from thence proceed to Germany, where I shall visit the Courts of Brunswick and Lüneburg, and about the end of August arrive at Berlin. I shall pass a month there. In the end of September I shall go to the Court of Baden- Durlach, from thence through Switzerland to Geneva. I shall visit Rousseau and Voltaire, and about the middle of November shall cross the Alps and get fairly into Italy. I shall there pass a delicious winter, and in April shall pass the Pyrenees and get into Spain, remain there a couple of months, and at last come to Paris.
The trip took him two years, including a lengthy side adventure to Corsica, where he became enamored of the cause of Corsican independence and became a lifelong friend of the rebel chief, General Paoli. But his main aim was collecting literary scalps, and he set his sights on the two French radicals, Rousseau and Voltaire.
Rousseau received the young man with all the courtesies, then found himself trapped in lengthy interviews with Boswell, who, fancying himself an intimate, increasingly treated Rousseau as a therapist, sending him a list of topics they would discuss in future meetings, and confessing his problems with his father, and an affair with a married woman in Scotland. Rousseau was, at times, oracular:
ROUSSEAU. ‘Do you like cats?’
ROUSSEAU. ‘I was sure of that. It is my test of character. There you have the despotic instinct of men. They do not like cats because the cat is free and will never consent to become a slave. He will do nothing to your order, as the other animals do.’
From his up-close and personal with Rousseau, Boswell next laid siege to Voltaire, then seventy. “Monsieur de Voltaire was sick and out of spirits this evening, yet I made him talk some time,” he wrote of one session.
He moved on to further conquests, writing Rousseau to ask permission to correspond with the latter’s mistress, twenty years his elder: ‘I assure you that I have formed no scheme of abducting your housekeeper. I often form romantic plans, but never impossible ones.’
Thirteen months later, Boswell was in bed with Therese in a Paris roadhouse, beginning a two-week fling that ended when he delivered her to the Scottish philosopher David Hume- who had given Rousseau refuge earlier- in London.
Out of Boswell’s Excellent European Adventures came a book, An Account of Corsica: one of the first Grand Tour memoirs in English. It sold well; in London again, Boswell was reunited with Johnson.
Over the coming decade he spent a month or so a year with Johnson, who called him “Bozzy” and overlooked his habit of invading Johnson’s private papers and copying things for the biography he was already planning (all told, Boswell and Johnson spent about 240 days together over a twenty-one year period; the American detective fiction novelist Lillian de la Tour managed to turn them into the 18th century Holmes & Watson in no less than thirty-three crime chronicles in her Dr Sam: Johnson, Detector series).
Back in Scotland, “Corsica” Boswell, as he fancied himself, passed his final exams and set up as a lawyer. He married a cousin in 1769 and had seven children with her between his innumerable affairs, after each of which he would promise her he would never stray again.
Boswell’s legal career was a critical rather than a financial success; he tried moving his practice to London, with no success. He sought a seat in Parliament, but no one would back him.
Pulling himself together, in 1785 he published a well-received account of a trip to the Hebrides with Johnson. In 1791 came his Life of Samuel Johnson, LLD, and the acclaim he had long sought.
The Life was a new form of biography, filled with personal detail and keen psychological insight- not something his critics thought possible from a pudgy, jumped-up twit from Scotland. But once his great work was finished, he had nothing left to do. His last years were marked by a slow decline, exacerbated his his endless drinking and priapism (he was treated for venereal disease seventeen times), dying at the age of 55.
Fate seemed to have needed Boswell for one great task, and he performed it so well he lives on to this day: his surname has passed into the English language as a neologism (Boswell, Boswellia, Boswellic) for a constant companion and observer, especially one who records those observations in print. In A Scandal in Bohemia, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's character Sherlock Holmes affectionately says of Dr. Watson, who narrates the tales, "I am lost without my Boswell."