Boswell's Presumptuous Task

Boswell's Presumptuous Task

The Making of the Life of Dr. Johnson

Adam Sisman - Author

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ISBN 9780142001752 | 368 pages | 24 Sep 2002 | Penguin | 5.35 x 7.99in | 18 - AND UP
  • National Book Critics Circle Award
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Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award—the story behind the writing of the best biography of all time

James Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson is the most celebrated of all biographies, acknowledged as one of the greatest and most entertaining books in the English language. Yet Boswell himself has generally been considered little more than an idiot and condemned by posterity as a lecher and drunk. How could such a fool have written such a book? With great wit, Adam Sisman here tells the story of Boswell's presumptuous task-the making of the greatest biography of all time. Sisman traces the friendship between Boswell and Samuel Johnson, his great mentor, and provides a fascinating account of Boswell's seven-year struggle to write The Life of Samuel Johnson.


To write the life of him who excelled all mankind in writing the lives of others . . . may be reckoned in me a presumptuous task.

This is the story of a book. Boswell's "presumptuous task" was to write the life of his friend and mentor, Samuel Johnson; in the pages that follow I have tried to show how he set about his task, and eventually, after almost seven years of effort and agony, fulfilled it.

Anyone with an interest in biography soon becomes interested in Boswell's Life of Johnson. It stands next to other biographies as Shakespeare stands beside other playwrights: towering above them all. For more than two centuries it has been continuously in print, and in that time it has won innumerable admirers. No other biography has given so much pleasure; no other biographer has created such a vivid central character. It has become a truism that, as a result of Boswell's extraordinary book, Samuel Johnson is better known to us than any other man in history.

As well as being a famous and much-loved book, the Life of Johnson is a work that raises fundamental questions about the nature of biography itself. Is it possible for a biographer to understand fully what it is like to be another human being? However careful and diligent the writer, can biography be accurate, that is, faithful to life? Everybody knows "Dr Johnson," or so we think; but is the man we know from the ink pages of Boswell's book the same Johnson that strode the streets of London 250 years ago? Is biography science, or art? History or fiction?

In his book James Boswell made a heroic attempt to display his friend "as he really was." He did not conceal his partiality; his reverence, affection, and even love for Johnson are obvious throughout, and an endearing feature of his biography. But neither did he conceal Johnson's faults: his rudeness, his prejudices, and his temper. Boswell was the first biographer to attempt to tell the whole truth about his subject, to portray his lapses, his blemishes, and his weaknesses as well as his great qualities: an aim we take for granted today, but in Boswell's time a startling innovation.

Boswell reconstructed Johnson's conversations from fragmentary records. He collected memorabilia of Johnson from every possible source, and then went to unprecedented lengths to verify the accuracy of the material he used. He insisted that "everything relevant to so great a man is worth observing," and though much ridiculed for it, he described the minute details of the way Johnson dressed, what he ate, and how he behaved. The result is that Johnson, a remote, venerable figure to most of his contemporaries, appears to us a warm, living human being.

Boswell's ambition was nothing less than to resuscitate his dead friend in print. Indeed (so Boswell claimed), had Johnson's other friends been as thorough in recording what he said and did, "he might have been almost entirely preserved" As it was, Boswell boasted that in his biography Johnson might be seen "more completely than any man who ever lived."

However, despite Boswell's determination to gather up every remaining scrap of information about his subject, aspects of Johnson's life were forever hidden from him. On a practical level, the two men did not meet until Johnson was fifty-three; and though Boswell came to know Johnson very well indeed afterwards, his knowledge was inevitably circumscribed. Boswell was also limited by his own limitations: he could not imagine what he could not comprehend. Like all biographers, he could show only what he could see. The man we come to know in the pages of Boswell's book is, so far as we can tell, faithful to life, but only to the life that Boswell witnessed and understood.

One way of reading the Life of Johnson is as a hybrid: a memoir concealed within a life. Boswell pays much less attention to the period of Johnson's life before they met: his subjects first fifty-three years take up less than one-fifth of his book, the remaining twenty-one more than four-fifths. From this point on, the reader is almost constantly aware of Boswell at Johnson's side; the narrative is much more lively once he appears. The special flavour of the Life of Johnson derives from the fact that the biographer is a character in his own book. Readers see Boswell coming to London in the hope of meeting Johnson; writing him letters that he did not send; contemplating writing his life; and proposing the idea to him, very tentatively. It is like watching a play when you can see the stage-hands, the actors waiting to come on, and indeed the playwright scribbling in the wings. Apparently everything is on view; but the more that can be seen, the less obvious it becomes where the true drama is taking place.

Though the Samuel Johnson evoked in Boswell's biography is one of the most powerful personalities in literature, as real as any character in fiction, he never quite escapes from his disciple, James Boswell: they remain as much a pair as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, or Holmes and Watson. Indeed, much of the pleasure in reading the Life of Johnson comes from the presence of Boswell as narrator, just as the presence of Watson (whom Holmes compared to Boswell) supplies much of the pleasure in the Sherlock Holmes stories. There are passages where Johnson appears to be sharing a confidence with the reader, while Boswell struggles to keep up, as if the writer was the last one to be let in on the joke. Johnson's amusement shines through the surface of Boswell's prose.

On the other hand, there are many occasions when Boswell seems almost like a ventriloquist, putting words into Johnson's mouth. He became adept at steering the conversation in directions which would stimulate Johnson to say something memorable; he was proud of this ability, though often it required him to play the straight man alongside Johnson, the butt of Johnson's wit. In this sense Boswell was creating his own copy, the reporter making news for himself.

Johnsonian scholars complain that Boswell has monopolized Johnson: that his gigantic biography dwarfs anything else written about his subject, or even by him. Edmund Burke, who knew them both, remarked that Johnson appears greater in Boswell's books than in his own. Today, people are much more likely to read Boswell's book about Johnson than they are to read Johnson himself. But that is not to say that Boswell was the greater man. Johnson's greatness lay in his mind, the art of thinking, that process which Boswell found so difficult; and it found its most lasting expression in his conversation -- more lasting than his writing, which even in his own lifetime was beginning to seem dated. Johnson's particular genius was to express in trenchant form eternal truths; like Oscar Wilde, he is perennially quotable.

Boswell kept a record of Johnson's talk in brief memoranda, noted down as soon as possible afterwards, later written up into a journal, which eventually became a principal source for his biography. This method of recording was flawed; even if the notes were scribbled down the same evening, there was plenty of opportunity for error. Though Boswell had a remarkable memory, it was not infallible; and to reconstruct Johnson's conversation Boswell had to call on his own imagination as well. In this sense the Johnson of the Life is Boswell's creation. But Boswell spent so much time in the company of his subject that Johnson's forms of speech, even the patterns of his thought, were deeply imprinted on the younger maws mind. Thus Boswell was to some extent Johnson's creation also, and thus he was able to recapture a version of what Johnson had said many years afterwards, and hand it on to us.

The Life of Johnson can be read as an unending contest between author and subject for posterity. Johnson and Boswell are locked together for all time, in part-struggle, part-embrace. Boswell win forever be known as Johnson's sidekick, remembered principally because he wrote the life of a greater man; Johnson is immortalized but also imprisoned by the Life, known best as Boswell portrayed him. Each is a creation of the other.

For the first hundred years or so after the Life of Johnson was published, critics tended to take the line that it was a great book written by a simpleton who just happened to be in the right place at the right time. The set-piece conversations seemed no more than a naïve record. Then a succession of astonishing finds-the literary equivalent of the discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb—revealed a "colossal hoard" of Boswell manuscripts, including the manuscripts of the Life of Johnson and its precursor The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, and his journals, among the most revealing ever written. We now have much more information about the biographer than we do about his subject. From being regarded as a little man who wrote a great book, Boswell came to be seen as an important literary figure, a pioneer of modern biography—and of autobiography, for the focus of academic interest has shifted from subject to author, from Boswell's books to his journals and manuscripts. It has become clear that many of the best-loved passages in the Life of Johnson originated in Boswell's autobiographical journal, and that Boswell was a much more careful and ambitious writer than anybody had supposed. No longer is Boswell regarded as a mere "stenographer," a secretary taking down Johnson's dictation, but as a writer of consummate skill, even genius. But just as these discoveries have led to a greater appreciation of Boswell as a writer, so they have prompted fresh questions about the fidelity of his book. The publication of Boswell's letters and journals started a scholarly debate about the accuracy of the Life of Johnson: was it really what it appeared to be, or was it a disguised piece of fiction? Was Boswells insistence on authenticity a cover? To what extent had Boswell "invented" Dr Johnson, as George Bernard Shaw suggested? And, indeed, himself?

When I became interested in the subject, I first thought of writing a full biography of Boswell, but I soon changed my mind. For one thing, there are several good biographies of Boswell already. I also found that my attention tended to flag when Boswell was not in Johnson's company; it was not Boswell the man that interested me (though he was a very interesting man), so much as Boswell the biographer. As someone who had worked in publishing, I had witnessed the scramble to memorialize an important literary figure after his death; and as a writer, I had experienced the pressures of writing a biography in competition with rivals. I became absorbed in trying to answer questions such as: What drew Boswell to Johnson in the first place? Why did he want to write about Johnson, and why did he persist, in the face of so much adversity? How did he set about his task? Did his ideas change as his writing progressed? Many of the biographical issues Boswell faced are commonplace nowadays, but were quite new when he tackled them. How did he evaluate the varied and sometimes contradictory material he gathered? Why did he put so much stress on verification? How did he deal with "delicate" topics: for example, Johnson's sexual dalliance with a young widow, while his wife was asleep in the next room? Boswell's journals and manuscripts provide a cornucopia of fresh information for anyone seeking the answer to such questions.

*Endnotes were omitted

Reprinted from Boswell's Presumptuous Task by Adam Sisman by permission of Penguin Books, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 2002, Adam Sisman. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.


List of Illustrations


Author's Note


Part One: Life Lived

1. Immaturity
2. Forwardness
3. Subordination

Part Two: Life Written

4. Independence
5. Collaboration
6. Anger
7. Discretion
8. Application
9. Rivalry
10. Bereavement
11. Humiliation
12. Struggle

Part Three: Life Published 

13. Despair
14. Posterity

List of Abbreviation Used in the Notes


Select Bibliography


"Extraordinarily gripping...Sisman skillfully takes us into the biographer's workshop." —The New York Review of Books

"Smart and very readable...a highly affecting portrait of Boswell the writer." —The New York Times Book Review

"[A] sparkling, companionable, and intelligent account...Sisman's approach is attractive and stimulating to anybody interested in the ethics of biography writing." —The Atlantic Monthly

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