James Boswell forever changed the genre of biography when he painstakingly transformed a scholarly profusion of detail into a perceptive, lifelike portrait of Dr. Samuel Johnson.
James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson reveals a man of outsized appetites and private vulnerabilities and is the source of much of what we know about one of the towering figures of English literature. Boswell spent a great deal of time with Johnson in his final years and from his scrupulously accurate memory and copious journal was able to faithfully record the brilliance and wit of Dr. Johnson’s conversation. Boswell’s aim and achievement was completeness; no detail was too small for him. On this point Dr. Johnson remarked to him, “There is nothing, sir, too little for so little a creature as man.” Boswell’s thirst for detail makes this indisputably the finest of many biographies of Johnson.
This biography gained its unique place in literary history from the fact that its style was revolutionary. The usual style of biographers of that era was to record dry facts from the subject’s public life only. Boswell differed by incorporating actual conversations of Dr. Johnson, which Boswell had previously noted down in journals, and by including many more details of personal life. The result revolutionized the genre.
For both its subject and its style, The Life of Samuel Johnson is still popular with modern critics and students of the history of English thought and of English literature.
Public Domain (P)1998 Blackstone Audio, Inc.
“The most famous single work of biographical art in the whole of literature.” (Walter Jackson Bate, American literary critic and biographer)
“The effect of [this] biography is also similar to that of War and Peace or Anna Karenina. Just as those novels provide a social history of Russia, so the Life serves as a portrait of late 18th-century England. On the title page Boswell claimed that his book exhibits ‘a View of Literature and Literary Men in Great Britain, for Near Half a Century,’ and the book has shaped posterity’s view of Johnson’s literary world quite as much as it has created an image of Johnson himself.” (Masterpieces of World Literature)
I've tried to read this legendary biography several times over the years, and while I've always suspected that it would provide me with no end of pleasure if I were stranded on the proverbial desert island, in actual daily life it has always proved slow and hard to stick with; in fact, I never even made it up to the point where Boswell first meets his hero.
This audiobook has proven the ideal way of appreciating the book. Most of all, I'm extremely taken with the mellow, cultivated, sober-but-good-humored, aged-in-oak voice and accent of Bernard Mayes. I realize that the quality of a narrator's voice is a matter of personal taste, but I, at least, find him pleasant to listen to even when -- as this particular biography forces him to do -- he's reading through a page or two of Latin. (Yep, that's something you'll have to be ready for if you venture into this book.) I've actually purchased several other titles Mayes has narrated just because he makes the listening so restful and agreeable.
This is a long book, and probably only suitable for diehard Johnson (or Boswell) fans. Bernard Mayes is a good narrator, although he sounds more like Johnson than Boswell. It's an older recording, and the sound quality is not top-notch; it's OK, but sounds a bit gravelly, and you can occasionally hear Mayes turning pages or bumping into the microphone.
I have to admit at the outset that I hate Boswell: not Boswell the writer but Boswell the man. As grateful as I am to have so much of Johnson's conversation preserved, Boswell uses his note-taking facility to create the illusion that he was by far the most important person in Johnson's life, when he was really only one among many, and only knew Johnson when most of the Great Man's literary achievements were in the past.
He relates a story about Oliver Goldsmith early on. Johnson, Boswell, and Goldsmith were out on a late-night jaunt, and Johnson invited Goldsmith to go home with him and sup with Mrs Williams (one of several unfortunate people Johnson contrived to care for on his slender means). Goldsmith preened and gloated: HE was going home "to Mrs Williams" and Boswell wasn't. What Boswell seems to be unconscious of is that his whole book is infused with that same attitude. Look at ME. Look at ME with Johnson. I had late-night bull sessions with the Great Man and you didn't, ha ha.
When another of Johnson's friends, Henry Thrale, is rumored to be dead, Boswell writes to Johnson, not to console him for his loss, but to upbraid Johnson for the fact that Boswell heard the news from someone else. At one point he deliberately stopped writing to Johnson to see if Johnson cared enough for him to write first.
And at one point, when Johnson is ranting about the evils of the slave trade, Boswell notes that, although he didn't say this to Johnson's face, he disagrees with his great friend: a case could be made, he says, that this trade is economically necessary and beneficial, even to the slaves.
So no, I'm no fan of Boswell himself, and my dislike of him colors my attitude toward his book. As great a talker as Johnson was, he was a better writer, and I would much rather have a well-narrated selection of his prefaces and essays than all the Boswells in the world.
That said, the conversations are remarkable and (at least for "completists," as someone once accused me of being) essential.
The book is too long by half. What would be great to see is a fresh reading of the book in one of several abridgements available. (There's one edited by Charles Grosvenor Osgood that appears to be in the public domain; Christopher Hibbert did an excellent annotated abridgement for Penguin many years ago that is still my preferred way to access this work.) Boswell's Life of Johnson is one of those audiobooks that are mostly available in either their massive entirety or in butchered and hatcheted two-hour selections. There's definitely room for a middle course. (I know there is one recording on Audible that meets this criterion, but I didn't care much for the narrator, so for me this remains an open opportunity.)
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