Up@dawn 2.0

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Johnson's Boswell

The Almanac today recognizes Sam Johnson's sidekick James Boswell, who was also Voltaire's friend. A good segue for us.
It's the birthday of James Boswell (books by this author), born in Edinburgh, Scotland (1740). He is best known as the author of Life of Johnson (1791), a biography of Dr. Samuel Johnson, which is considered by many people to be the greatest biography ever written in English. As a young man, Boswell's father wanted him to settle down and take care of the family's ancestral estate in rural Scotland. Boswell wanted adventure, excitement, and intrigue, so he ran away to London and became a Catholic. He began keeping a journal in London, and instead of describing his thoughts and feelings about things, he wrote down scenes from his life as though they were fiction. He described his friends as though they were characters and recorded long stretches of dialogue. 
As a young man, Boswell was the life of the party, and everyone who met him liked him. The French writer Voltaire invited him to stay at his house after talking to him for only half an hour. David Hume asked him to stay at his bedside when he died. He hung out with the philosopher Rousseau, and Rousseau's mistress liked him so much that she had an affair with Boswell. He was even friends with the pope. And then on May 16, 1763, he met the scholar and writer Samuel Johnson in the back room of a bookstore. Johnson was a notoriously unfriendly man, but Boswell had long admired him and tried hard to impress him. The next time they met, Johnson said to Boswell, "Give me your hand. I have taken a liking to you." Johnson was 30 years older than Boswell and he was the most renowned literary scholar in England. Boswell was undistinguished compared to Johnson's other friends, but Boswell never tried to compete with Johnson's intellect. Their relationship was like an interview that went on for years. Boswell would just ask questions and listen to Johnson talk, and then he would go home and write it all down in his journal. 
The two men eventually became great friends. They talked about everything from philosophy and religion to trees and turnips. Boswell knew early on that he would write Johnson's biography, but he didn't start until after Johnson's death. The work was slow going. He watched as several others published books about Johnson, and he worried that no one would care about his book when he finished it. He had to fight with his editor to keep the odd details, like the things Johnson had said to his cat and what kind of underwear he thought women should wear. He felt that these were the details that revealed who Johnson really was. When the book finally came out, it was a huge best-seller. No one had ever written such a personal biography that so completely captured a life, and no one has done so since.

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