Tuesday, January 4, 2022

My Best Boswell

"It is strange that there should be so little reading in the world, and so much writing."

-- from The Life of Samuel Johnson, Volume IV, pg. 513, by James Boswell

I own four editions of James Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson. Just the other day I put the number at three. I was off by one. Then I remembered that somewhere here I still have what can only be described as the remains of a two volume Everyman's Library from I think the 1950s. There are bits of the dust wrappers for each but the books themselves even when I bought them were in a sorry state and volume one -- it's always just volume one, isn't it? -- was defaced by the usual idiot notes and underlinings. (People who write in books! Pencil may just be forgivable I suppose, but ink? And even the smell of a "highlighter" makes me nauseous. This is the used bookseller in me, yes, but also as a reader of books largely owned by other people before me I feel I must say this flat out: I can count on just my two hands every interesting annotation I've ever read. If you write in your books then yes I am talking to you. You've done no one any favors, my dear, including you. Buy a pack of Post-It and a sturdy notebook, you animal. If you must, buy cheap paperbacks and throw them away when you are done. Corrections to the text can be useful, even amusing, if rare. I should very much, however painful, like to see Johnson's annotations in the books he mangled to make his dictionary. Otherwise? I've owned books owned before me by professors, journalists, actors, and even a respectable writer or two, and do you know what? What wasn't obvious was insipid or mean or pompous or illegible, and sometimes all at the same time. Nearly no one looks good in just their notes, folks. Once went to value the books of a reputable Shakespearean scholar, a much respected teacher of literature. Know what he wrote next to Ophelia's mad speech? "Flower image," and then he underlined that and the individual flowers! Didn't know where to look for blushing. Spare us all the embarrassment; if this is you, please see to it now that when you die your books are burned. It'll be a kindness really, to your memory and to your heirs. In short, if you cannot read without ink or remember without painting the pages of a book, you've no business owning any book worth keeping.)

It is the practice of many readers to note, in the margin of their books, the most important passages, the strongest arguments, or the brightest sentiments. Thus they load their minds with superfluous attention, repress the vehemence of curiosity by useless deliberation, and by frequent interruption break the current of narration or the chain of reason, and at last close the volume, and forget the passages and marks together." -- Samuel Johnson, Idler #74, September 15th, 1759

The three versions of Boswell that I remembered better are an Oxford Standard Authors in one bulky volume, a really beautiful big three volume club edition from the thirties, with sparse illustration and lovely wide white margins, and my favorite: Boswell's Life of Johnson, in six small volumes, edited by Augustine Birrell, from Archibald Constable and Co., LTD., published in 1904. Each volume is about four and a half inches by seven and no more than three hundred pages. Just the right size for carrying around. The print, particularly in the notes is painfully small, but clear. This set is my favorite and among my favorites generally, one of the books I most love. 

I was working as a buyer in a used bookshop when I found it. I hadn't bought the box of books it was in. It was lost in a jumble of other old and largely useless things. It was a dirty, ugly little lump, broken and battered and foul smelling. A previous owner had cut some thick plastic for covers to each volume. This had decayed and become sticky, and stinky with age. In fact all six books were stuck together when I found them. Most of the hinges were broken or breaking, and some were repaired with cellophane tape, now so dry that when the books were opened the strips crumbled and fluttered out like dragonfly-wings. I would never have paid a penny for the set, but the bookstore's owner had already marked it at $20.00 and I paid that and bought it for the editor's sake. Augustine Birrell (1850 - 1933), author of Obiter Dicta and other charming essays, was a largely unlucky politician -- Chief Secretary for Ireland -- and a gentleman of letters in the very best sense. For his sake, I decided to try to save these books. 

I managed to detach the volumes from one another and discarded the plastic jackets. I cleaned each volume as best I could. I erased the unreadable pencil notes and underlining. I pulled and picked out all of the tape. I unbent the dog-ears and I glued the broken hinges and I pressed each bowed volume as flat as I could make them under a considerable weight for a considerable time. I glued down the loose labels, even though they can't really be read, and I aired the lot in a dark dry room for some days before I even tried to read them. When I had done the best I could by them, these six little books, though far from handsome, looked about as respectable as they could be made to look. This then was the edition I read first in my thirties, then again in my forties, and read now in my fifties. It feels right in my hand and easier to read than any of my others, despite the small print. These books were made when even cheap books were better made than most new books are now. And I like Birrell's notes, and the letters he occasionally elbowed into the text, such as Johnson's last little letters to his dying mother. (An example I wish had been followed since.)

Edwardians being dreadful snobs almost to the man, they always seem to assume that the reader has at least "small Latin and less Greek," as well as French and Italian (!) but that isn't such an issue in the age of the Internet. True, more modern editions have uniformly better notes, but often too many. Birrell's introduction is all of eighteen short pages long and nearly as delightful as his longer essay on Johnson in his Selected Essays. More, Birrell is neither a bore nor a man with any point to prove. His only intent is to share his enthusiasm. (Imagine that from a professor, and who else writes introductions to books like Boswell's, nowadays!) He may not have been the most garrulous editor -- his own notes are few, fun, and far between -- but best of all he is no fool. He trusts his reader and the value of his text. In this he is not unlike the biographer himself, or his subject.


In Lichfield, Staffordshire there is a statue* of James Boswell with what, from certain angles looks to be a cabbage on his head. It's not. It's just a hat. Still, this would not have been the first suggestion that the 9th Laird of Auchinleck was himself a bit of a cabbage. His contemporaries seem to have found the little Scot more than a little absurd; nosey, pretentious, touchy, and even a bit dim. Subsequent generations of critics were not much kinder. An exception was critic Walter Raleigh (Victorian professor not Elizabethan pirate) who stated plainly that "the idle paradox that presents him in the likeness of a lucky dunce was never tenable by serious criticism..." In this estimation though Raleigh was singularly rare. Until the middle of the 20th Century and the publication of his rediscovered journals and papers, Boswell's achievement mystified most critics. How could such a little man have written such a great book? In his famous essay on Johnson, Thomas Babington Macaulay offered the following description of this pre-eminent biographer, Boswell: "That he was a coxcomb and a bore, weak, vain, pushing, curious, garrulous, was obvious to all who were acquainted with him." A generation later, critic Leslie Stephen was not much kinder: "His absurd vanity, and the greedy craving for notoriety at any cost, would have made Boswell the most offensive of mortals, had not his unfeigned good-humour disarmed enmity. Nobody could help laughing, or be inclined to take offence at his harmless absurdities." To give both their due, Stephen is also quick to point out that Boswell was always just as quick to laugh at himself, surely among the highest virtues in a man, a writer, and a friend?

Boswell's archives, including extensive journals and hundreds of letters were actually discovered packed away in trunks by his descendants and left in a hayloft in an Irish castle, of all places. Eventually donated by an American millionaire to Yale University, the publication of Boswell journals and manuscripts transformed his critical reputation. Turns out he was a far more thoughtful writer and a far greater artist than was previously assumed. He was both more flawed and more lovable than perhaps anyone but his friend Johnson ever understood.  His journals have in fact now been declared classics of English literature in their own right.

There is a frankness in Boswell that can still be startling to modern readers. Both his sex life and his ambition were revealed in new and naked detail in the journals, but so was the hard work he put into books, his real affection for his  friends, and his genuine if sometimes neglectful love of family. His Life of Samuel Johnson is in it's own way a surprisingly frank document, as well as a remarkable exercise in wholesale preservation -- Boswell never met with a scrap of paper from his subject's hand that he didn't treasure -- and justly celebrated as the supreme record of Johnson's conversation. But the biography can also sometimes be a most unflattering, hence very modern portrait. (See Johnson eating.) More though, in his great work, Boswell records nearly his own every idiocy, dumb question and many of his personal embarrassments. If in his journals this honesty rises to another level, what with all the whoring and climbing, etc., in even his Life of Samuel Johnson it is meant to feel like he's held little back. (Actually, Boswell was very careful of Johnson's innumerable vulnerabilities, and quick to find fault in Johnson's critics, and his own rivals, chief among whom Boswell numbers Johnson's much beloved Mrs. Thrale and Sir John Hawkins, Johnson's earlier friend, literary executor, and first biographer.) It would seem the very thing his contemporaries found most annoying in Boswell, his pushing personality and his persistence, proved his greatest virtue as a biographer. His style, which they could not see at all, is in his all but ever presence on the page -- a choice made much in advance of his time and still imitated down to at least the "New Journalism" of writers like Didion and Tom Wolfe, and many a nonfiction writer since. Boswell's story, his education, is the frame of his portrait of Johnson. It is Boswell who makes Johnson modern.

Hugh Kingsmill, himself biographer, journalist, and something of a wit, in 1940 produced Johnson Without Boswell. It is The Life basically with all the Boswell out of it. No harsher criticism than that, one would think. And yet Kingsmill admits himself there would hardly be enough Johnson to make such a book without Boswell. In some ways, all the modern scholarship and the publication of Boswell's papers have nearly and neatly reversed the earlier critical opinion, and now for many if not most readers, Johnson only exists to the extent that Boswell keeps him alive. Neither man deserves this. It is one of the least attractive undertakings of modern criticism, this business of knocking down and building up and then knocking down in turn. Boswell himself had no doubt of who was the greater man and writer. We needn't take him at his word, anymore than we must accept Johnson's gloomy spiritual inventories as the best estimate of his own character. Johnson did a great thing in his dictionary, as Boswell did with his biography. Johnson also wrote more and better than almost any man in his time, encouraged the best from his friends, valued the best of his predecessors, and promoted what he hoped would last in his own and other's languages. Would we now know Johnson without his Boswell? Not nearly so well if at all, and more, we might not know how to love him. As to Boswell, Johnson loved him and now we can too as few enough did before us, and as I do best in six shabby little, much repaired volumes from more than a century ago.

Call it all a rescue, a record of admiration, conversation, and the preservation of a friendship. Call it a reclamation, if not from obscurity then from old boxes and dim shelves and the dusty studies of dusty old men, and from the exclusive attentions of scholars and antiquarians. Call it an old friend in a rusty, brown suit, well met.

Boswell met Johnson in a bookstore, you know. Best way, really.

*The sculptor, Percy Hetherington Fitzgerald (1834-1925), was actually quite the fellow: a painter, biographer, journalist and regular contributor to Dickens' magazine Household Words. Fitzgerald's bust of his editor and friend can be seen in the Pump Room, Bath, and his delightfully curvy statue of Samuel Johnson in the Strand, London.

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