Boswell's Presumptuous Task
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When it appeared in 1791, James Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson was the most innovative and most intimate biography ever written. It revealed its subject more fully, more dramatically, and more completely than any previous biographyand, arguably, more than any biography since.
Adam Sisman's Boswell's Presumptuous Task gives us an innovative and intimate account of the making of that book, a biography of Boswell's biography of Johnson. It reveals Boswell's literary methods, his personal foibles, and the widely varied critical reception his masterpiece has received over the past two centuries. In doing so, Sisman engages questions of essential importance to the biographical enterprise: Can the biographer ever truly understand another human being? Can a biography be fully accurate? How faithful should the biographer be to his/her source materials? How much of the biographer's own life inevitably intrudes into his or her work?
In Boswell's own case, Sisman shows that far from being a sycophantic recorder of Johnson's brilliant conversations, Boswell exerted a high degree of literary skill in crafting, editing, and in some cases altering his subject's remarks. Though he was scrupulous about checking his impressions against others who knew Johnson well, and tenacious about providing sources for all his material (a practice now standard but extraordinary at the time), Boswell was willing to sacrifice accuracy for aesthetic effect. The two men were friends for more than twenty years, yet there were sides to Johnson forever closed to Boswell. Sisman's book gives readers a clear and probing analysis of the ways in which Boswell knew Johnson, how that knowledge affected him, and how he shaped it into what is widely regarded as the greatest biography ever written. Boswell's Presumptuous Task gives us a vivid portrait of Boswell as a writerhis inner turmoil, chaotic outer life, and heroic perseverancestruggling to do justice to his subject.
That portrait reveals not only Boswell the man and writer, but the very origins of modern biographical writing, for Boswell turned biography away from the kind of sloppy encomium then the norm towards the more rigorous, exhaustive, and balanced approach that we now take for granted. He was tireless in gathering up every letter to and from Johnson, in verifying what Johnson said and did, and in including as much material, both good and bad, as was humanly possible. Boswell professed to "write, not his panegyric, but his Life; which, great and good as he was, must not be supposed to be entirely perfect." To reveal Johnson's true character, he sought to include "shade as well as light" and to focus not only on the great events but also "the minute details of daily life." These were groundbreaking innovations in Boswell's time and paved the way for modern biography as we now know it.
Sisman also shows the degree to which Boswell prefigures modern autobiography. In his journals and diaries, Boswell was an unflinching examiner of his own behavior and, more importantly, of his own mind. Sisman suggests that Boswell anticipates Freud in the depth of his introspection and self-analysis, revealing "everything in his mind without restraint, concealment, or distortion." In many ways, our own age of self-searching memoir finds its origins in Boswell.
But Boswell's Presumptuous Task is not only an exploration of the beginnings of modern biography and autobiography. It is also a book about one of the most unlikely and fruitful friendships in English literary history. Sisman's account shows us the inner workings of that friendship, and elucidates the masterful work that resulted from it.
Adam Sisman is the author of A. J. P. Taylor: A Biography. He lives with his wife, the novelist Robyn Sisman, and their two children.
Q. How would you explain the ongoing interest, amongst both scholars and general readers, in Johnson and Boswell? What drew you to write about the making of Boswell's book?
A. The simple answer is that the two are perennially fascinating. Hundreds of books have been written about them, yet there is always more to say, as I hope I have demonstrated.
The recent discovery of Boswell's papershis letters, manuscripts, and his extraordinary journalshas proved a gold-mine for scholars, and led to a complete reassessment of his work. He is now recognized as a writer of great skill, even genius: very different from the fool who merely copied down what people said, the image that prevailed for the first 150 years or so after his death. I was first drawn to the subject after writing a biography (of the historian A.J.P. Taylor, himself a biographer), in the process of which I became interested in biography itself. This led me on to Boswell's The Life of Johnson, the first and arguably the greatest of all biographies. And the more I learned about Boswell and Johnson, the more I wanted to know about these two unlikely friends. As A.J.P. Taylor once said, "When I want to find out about something, I write a book about it."
Q. How would you describe Boswell's influence on biography? Has this influence been entirely positive?
A. It's hard to assess Boswell's influence. Undoubtedly his book was a landmark, "a new species of biography" as one contemporary called it; he set a new standard of verisimilitude. But there was no "school of Boswell"; his work stands alone. More generally, I argue in my book that Boswell's Johnson was a moral and intellectual hero, who inspired the young Romantic poets, and who continues to inspire readers to this dayespecially, I think, in the United States.
Q. How would you respond to those who, like Donald Greene, feel that Boswell's reputation has grown so much that it overshadows Johnson's? How would you answer Greene's charge that Boswell's apparent hero-worship of Johnson "is a mask, disguising from himself and others an unconscious wish to cut Johnson down to size and establish, in the end, the superiority of Boswell"? A. Greene's charge seems to me a perverse misreading: far from wishing to cut Johnson down to size in his book, Boswell went to extraordinary lengths to defend him against what he saw as unfair criticism, for example from Mrs. Piozzi. I think it's quite clear that Boswell revered Johnson. I argue in my book that Boswell found it profoundly reassuring and indeed psychologically necessary to assert Johnson's superiority.
I do agree with Greene that there is a regrettable modern tendency to praise Boswell at Johnson's expense. But if Boswell's reputation now overshadows Johnson's, that is not his fault. Indeed, Boswell would have been horrified at the prospect.
Q. You describe in great detail Boswell's method in writing The Life of Samuel Johnson. Could you tell us something about your own way of working on Boswell's Presumptuous Task?
A. I can't claim that my own way of working was as colorful as Boswell's! But there are certain similarities. Like him, I live in the countryside but am repeatedly drawn to the city; like him, I was distracted by domestic concerns, and by the need to pursue another career to provide essential income, so that there were periods of a year or more when I did no writing at all; and like him, I was plagued by anxieties of various kinds, including the fear that I might be scooped by a competitor. I see now that these were misplaced; but I think such anxieties are commonperhaps universalin writers.
Q.What is your sense of the state of the art of biography now? Are there any recent literary biographies that approach the mastery of Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson?
A. Right now biography is going through an interesting stage, as biographers experiment with the form in playful and sometimes outlandish ways. Meanwhile fine biographies of the more conventional type are published every year. Michael Holroyd has described this as the "golden age of biography" (though I see that he has also said recently that "biography is dead").
But there is no biography, recent or otherwise, comparable to The Life of Samuel Johnson. As I write in the concluding sentence of my book, never again will there be such a combination of subject, author, and opportunity.
Q. Would you agree with Carlyle's claim that Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson is a book "beyond any other product of the eighteenth century"?
A. Traditionally, art held a position of unique importance in Russia. For most of the last two centuries, the artist—whether writer, painter, or composer—was often seen as a figure of immense power, a prophet, a warrior, a savior, whose holy duty was to proclaim the Truth in times of trials and tribulations. In today’s Russia, the landscape is staggeringly different: as market forces have replaced political repression, the public increasingly favors entertainers over prophets, and the new generation of writers and artists must master the craft of promoting and selling instead of the once-vital craft of writing between the lines or painting between the cracks—a different brand of survival skills altogether. The transition has not been easy, and I have heard many say that their freedom of expression has come at a price, and a steep one at that. I myself do not have any firsthand experience of the Russian literary world, but I suspect that at this stage, with Russian publishing still breaking in its new commercial shoes, it is much harder for one to publish noncommercial fiction in Russia than in the United States. On the other hand, the fact that blacklists and gulags are things of the past must surely count for something.
Q. How have readers and critics in Russia responded to your book? And what about those here in the United States?
A. There is no Russian translation of the novel as of yet, and while the few reviews that have appeared in the Russian press have been quite favorable, my book has so far reached only English-speaking Russians. Of course, I very much hope that the novel will be published in Russia someday. As for the reception in the United States, it has been an ongoing, deepening, pleasant surprise: I never expected to find so many wonderful, perceptive readers who could see beyond the seemingly exotic trappings of the story and relate, often on a very emotional level, to the universal nature of my character’s dilemma.
Q. Could you describe the creative process involved in imagining the consciousness of someone like Sukhanov, someone quite different from yourself—a middle-aged art magazine editor in the Soviet Union whose life is unraveling? How do you get so convincingly inside the minds and hearts of your characters?
A. For me, one of the more enchanting aspects of writing is the flight of fancy, if you will, that comes with the freedom to inhabit absolutely anyone’s life for a span of some pages. In my short stories, I have written from the perspective of a little boy who collects stamps, a Greek policeman on a remote island, an old photographer, a drunk ballet dancer, even a pair of shoelaces—but only once or twice from the viewpoint of a young woman. On the other hand, while none of the characters in my novel is autobiographical, many carry a little piece of myself, a familiar emotion, a possible choice, a chance thought—rooted mainly in the shared happenstance of being human, I suspect, rather than any gender, age, or factual similarity between me and the figments of my imagination. Sukhanov’s predicament is very human—a choice between his dreams and his family, between uncertainty and security, between a nebulous notion of future accomplishment and a simple, everyday happiness. Picturing myself in his shoes did not stretch my imagination as wildly as one might think.
Q. Sukhanov is first fascinated by surrealism, later forced to denounce it, and finally seems to be subsumed by it in his own Daliesque hallucinations. Why did you choose to make surrealism such a central part of the novel?
A. No. How can you compare works as different as, say, Tristram Shandy and The Life of Samuel Johnson? I don't think it's profitable to rate books in this way. But I am sure that The Life of Samuel Johnson is a masterpiece, one of the outstanding books of its own or any century, a work that continues to delight and enrich readers more than two hundred years after it was written.
Q. You argue that Boswell was a kind of pre-Freudian Freudian, "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." What prompted Boswell to take such an unprecedented approach, and to persist in it? Why did he feel a similar need to expose himself so completely in his journals?
A. The prompt was Johnson himself, who in a famous essay on biography criticized the then prevalent view that the faults of the dead should be suppressed or glossed over. On the contrary, "if nothing but the bright side of characters should be shown, we should sit down in despondency, and think it utterly impossible to imitate them in any thing." Boswell quoted from this essay in his preamble to The Life of Samuel Johnson.
Early in their friendship Johnson encouraged Boswell to write a journal, but as Boswell then revealed, he was already doing so. One can only speculate on Boswell's motives for keeping such a frank and potentially damaging journal. He certainly believed that the act of writing regularly was beneficial in itself. He claimed that reading the journal would enable him to monitor and thus improve his own behavior; and also that it might serve as "a store of entertainment for my after life"perhaps contradictory ambitions. Boswell was anxious that his journal might be used against him, but he was haunted by a morbid fear of evanescence and a sense that his life meant nothing unless it were recorded. He had to be completely open in his journals, because he used them as a means of exploring his own thoughts and feelings. Maybe only a man with such a combination of vanity and naïveté could have written so openly about himself.
- How has reading Boswell's Presumptuous Task changed your perception of Boswell? Of Johnson? Of the relationship between the two men?
- Sisman argues that Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson was "a pioneering work which opened up new possibilities for biography" (p. 314). What did Boswell accomplish that had never been attempted in biography before? What is unusual in his approach to, and presentation of, his subject?
- In a Rambler essay, Johnson wrote of biography that "no species of writing is more worthy of cultivation" (p. 153). Sisman suggests that Johnson esteemed biography because he "believed in the power of example, the value of learning about other men's lives so that one might live one's own life better" (p. 154). Is this still a major motive for reading biographies today? What other reasons draw people to the form? Does what Boswell learned about Samuel Johnson's life appear to have helped him to live his own?
- In his introduction, Sisman suggests that, "the Life of Johnson can be read as an unending contest between author and subject for posterity....Boswell will 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" (p. xviii). Some critics, most notably Donald Greene, have recently complained that Boswell's reputation has become "preposterously inflated," while a scholarly edition of Johnson's works remains unpublished for lack of funds. Who has won this contest for posterity? Has Boswell become a more important writer than Johnson? Is Boswell deserving of greater fame than the man he wrote about?
- For the greater part of two centuries, Boswell was considered, at best, hardly more than a stenographer, merely copying down Samuel Johnson's brilliant conversations, and at worst, in the words of Macaulay, "a man of the meanest and feeblest intellect...servile and impertinent, shallow and pedantic, a bigot and a sot, bloated with family pride, and eternally blustering about the dignity of a born gentleman, yet stooping to be a talebearer, an eaves-dropper, a common butt in the taverns of London" (p. 293). In what ways does Sisman's book challenge both of these views? What more nuanced picture of Boswell, as both a writer and a man, emerges from Sisman's book?
- How would you explain the relationship between Boswell's disordered lifehis drunkenness, whoring, and professional failuresto his admiration of Johnson?
- Boswell was attacked during his day for divulging too much of Johnson's private life. The Reverend Dr. Vicesimus Knox complained that "Instead of an instructive recital, [biography] is becoming an instrument to the mere gratification of an impertinent, not to say a malignant, curiosity" (p. 135). Is this charge in any way just, or merely a reflection of eighteenth-century prudishness? How would Knox, and others like him, react to today's tell-all biographies?
- Sisman shows Boswell in relation to three powerful and domineering men: his father, Johnson, and Lord Lonsdale. What do we learn about Boswell through his interactions with these three figures?
- Boswell appears to be trapped between the Scylla and Charybdis of inauthenticity on the one hand, and literary incompetence on the other. If he merely recorded Johnson's conversations, his Life is authentic but lacks literary sophistication. If he manipulates Johnson's words for greater effects, he demonstrates his literary skill but renders his book less authentic. To what extent should the biographer remain faithful to his sources? To what extent should he/she massage those sources for aesthetic effects? Was Boswell right to rewrite and otherwise alter some of Johnson's remarks?
- At the beginning of his book, Sisman asks: "Is it possible for a biographer to understand fully what it is like to be another human being?...Is biography science, or art? History or fiction?" (p. xv-xvi). Based on your reading of Boswell's Presumptuous Task, how would you answer these questions? How do you think Sisman would answer them?