The Biography Conundrum — Was Boswell smarter than Johnson?
When he rode, he had no command or direction of his horse, but was carried as if in a balloon.
On Friday 18th April 1783, Good Friday, James Boswell went to see Samuel Johnson. ‘I found him at breakfast, in his usual manner upon that day, drinking tea without milk, and eating a cross-bun to prevent faintness; we went to St Clement’s church, as formerly.’ That is St Clement Danes, re-built by Christopher Wren a hundred years before, one of the two ‘island churches’ in the Strand. If you have seen St James’ Piccadilly, you will be familiar with its style. As so often, the steeple is not Wren’s. Although it was Johnson’s regular church, he is not buried there, but in Westminster Abbey.
When they got back, he and Boswell took one seat each on either side of the garden door in Johnson’s apartments, and they talked ‘in the open air and in a placid frame of mind.’ It is one of my favourite conversations in the Life of Johnson because it shows the range, flexibility, and acuity of Johnson’s mind, even though he was seventy-three and would die nineteen months later. An opsimath indeed.
They start by discussing whether, if they were country gentlemen, they would be hospitable to many people or not. Boswell recounts the number of people Sir Alexander Dick told him came to his house every year. Johnson immediately calculates how many that is per day. ‘How your statement lessens the idea,’ says Boswell. They talk about how counting things brings them into proportion (counting, says Johnson, ‘brings everything to certainty’) and removes the grandness of general statements. Boswell slightly regrets this loss of grandeur. ‘Sir,’ Johnson replies, ‘you should not let yourself be delighted with error.’
Anyone who wants to be an educated person, to be rational or sensible, to be able to think critically, to be able to read the news without being duped, to learn to stop taking the world at face value should take that to heart.
Write it down and put in on the wall. You should not let yourself be delighted with error.
Once they were done shooting the breeze about hosting responsibilities, the two old friends moved on to poor people who collect bones. Boswell had noticed this happening and wondered why. They boil them, Johnson said, to make grease used on wheels. The best pieces of bone make mock ivory for knife handles. The ‘coarser pieces’ are burned and ground and the ashes are sold to chemists to be made into a paste to line the chemist’s pots. The paste of burnt bones will not melt under the intense heat required to melt iron.
Boswell switches to oranges. He has seen Johnson ‘scraping and drying the peel of oranges’ and notes now that this is done on a larger scale by manufacturers. Johnson tells him they use it to make a fragrant oil.
And there’s more! Boswell wants a walled garden; Johnson thinks it wouldn’t be worth the expense. He knows about the fixed and variable cost of building walls; he knows the price of land; he knows that for the amount of land Boswell can afford, and the cost of the wall, his fruit yields, considering the climate, will be insufficient. ‘Such contention with nature is not worth while.’ He knows that there are hardly any orchards in Lincolnshire.
Boswell records all this in such minute detail ‘to shew clearly how this great man, whose mind could grasp such large and extensive subjects, as he has shewn in his literary labours, was yet well-informed in the common affairs of life, and loved to illustrate them.’
The book rolls on and Johnson talks about whether priests should admit to their training in oratory and the process by which language first occurred.
This is the sort of passage that makes some people (maybe most people) believe that Boswell cannot have been telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Not because Johnson wasn’t capable of this sort of intellectual fluency — of course he was, the man’s mind was a river of knowledge, ideas, and invention — but because Boswell cannot possible have remembered so much and in so much detail.
Maybe. Maybe. There are times when he confesses his gaps. Of Sunday 17th May 1775 he says, ‘of which I find all my memorial is, “much laughing”.’ He compensates with a short description of Johnson when he was laughing. One friend said, ‘he laughs like a rhinoceros.’
But Boswell had a remarkable memory. He invented his own system of shorthand (which he learned as a lawyer) and made compressed notes of his conversations with Johnson. He filled out the notes later on. Where comparisons are available with other sources, Boswell comes off fairly accurate, in content if not down to final wording.
But what about Johnson’s stern warning: You should not let yourself be delighted with error. Isn’t Boswell’s book technically full of errors, however small? Doesn’t that mean that there’s an accumulated distortion? What about all the times we are not able to compare Boswell to someone else? How sure are we that his accuracy record would hold up over a larger sampling? Let us compare Boswell to another famous biographer, one with a real disregard for the truth.
Lytton Strachey, one of the most celebrated English biographers, did let himself be delighted with error. He invented, distorted, manipulated, and merged his facts to suit his argument, which was with society at large, not his subjects. I wrote a long, detailed rant Against Lytton Strachey once before, so we won’t rehearse all of that here. Here’s a good example: Strachey wasn’t above editing General Gordon’s diaries to make him look like a villain. Yes, you read that right, editing the diaries.
Strachey said in his preface, ‘Human beings are too important to be treated as mere symptoms of the past. They have a value which is independent of any temporal processes.’ And yet, Holroyd tells us, the errors, dissimulations, amends, omissions, and distortions Strachey introduces into the material are because
Strachey was not simply interested in his subject as an individual person, but in the interaction between her and the abhorrent age in which she lived.
Which is it? Does Strachey see them as valuable for who they are or for what they represent about the age? Holroyd is counsel for the defence and has to ignore one of Strachey’s main ideas in order to defend his work. Strachey is not really a biographer but a frustrated polemicist. That is why, for me, Strachey is emphatically not a new departure for biography. He takes the old hagiography and merely inverts it. He is tabloid.
It is not just that Strachey makes errors but that he delights in them. He knowingly changes the facts however and whenever he wants to for moral not just literary effect. If you are a modern, literary, liberal person, uncomfortable with empire, disdainful of establishment, revolted by patriarchy, this is easy to overlook. After all, it wasn’t a harmless set of lies, but a noble one. And it is such good writing! It made Bertrand Russell laugh! Oh spare me.
This is not what Boswell was doing. He concealed some important facts about Johnson’s sexual life, but he was trying to present Johnson as he was. This is a massive detailed portrait of a person. Of course some of it will be borderline fictional. Anyone who knows anything about memory, witness testimony, the inability of a group of people to accurately recall the lunch they had together yesterday, knows that.
The case against Boswell cannot be made on the basis that he is not always accurate. He went to great lengths to collect and print Johnson’s letters. He spent hours and hours and hours of his life noting down Johnson’s speech. He spoke to dozens of Johnson’s friends. For God’s sake, he sought Johnson out and followed him round, travelled with him, talked to him about every conceivable subject. Boswell knew Johnson. He might not have got all the details right, he might have invented some of them, but that is not the same as Strachey’s egregious dissimulations. Boswell was always trying to give an overall picture of fidelity.
Here’s Johnson to explain.
‘Shakespeare never has six lines together without a fault. Perhaps you may find seven, but this does not refute my general assertion. If I come to an orchard, and say there’s no fruit here, and then comes a poring man1, who finds two apples and three pears, and tells me, “Sir, you are mistaken, I have found both apples and pears,” I should laugh at him: what would that be to the purpose?’
The important thing is that where Boswell is not accurate it is in the service of presenting Johnson’s character, not for a political purpose. He does not delight in error. This is not a great man biography (nor tabloid denunciation). He is constantly interrupting the narrative to tell us what Johnson has got wrong, thinks his hero has narrow beliefs about politics and religion, and was happy to show him being ridiculous, as in this description: ‘when he rode, he had no command or direction of his horse, but was carried as if in a balloon.’
So that brings us one final question. Who was smarter, Johnson or Boswell? Johnson said most of this stuff, but Boswell recorded it, organised it, and compiled it into a narrative, over a period of decades. Johnson was a big enough man to justify being a subject of the most original biography ever written — but Boswell produced it, showing perhaps more enterprise and industry than his mentor ever did. And as I said, Boswell had phenomenal powers of memory. If anyone took Johnson’s teachings to heart, it was Boswell. How else could he have written this book?
Think about that Good Friday conversation, where Johnson said so much about so many topics. As Boswell said, ‘His moral precepts are practical; for they are drawn from an intimate acquaintance with human nature.’ Boswell also had such an acquaintance. He knew what topics to start talking about. He had observed the bone collectors and orange peel manufacturers. He, too, was a vast and vivid individual, more troubled than Johnson, less outwardly impressive, but perhaps just as worthy of his place in the greatest biography ever written.
This is the topic of my next salon, on Tuesday 31st May at 19:00 UK time. Is what makes the Life of Johnson great the subject Samuel Johnson, pioneering lexicographer, poet, essayist, pillar of morality, and Latin scholar—or the author James Boswell, failed lawyer, frequenter of prostitutes, sycophant, and a drunk?
Book a ticket to join the salon now.
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A poring man is someone poring over the details of something. To pore is defined in Johnson’s dictionary as, ‘To look with great intenseness and care; to examine with great attention.’