FROM THE STACKS OCTOBER 29, 2013
On this day in 1740, the Scottish author and lawyer James Boswell was born. Best known for his pioneering usage of human details and personal observations in biography, Boswell famously penned Life of Johnson, a work so notable that Virginia Woolf chose to sing its praises 130 years after its publication.
If this were the age of faith, Dr. Johnson would certainly be Saint Samuel, Fleet Street would be full of holy places where he preached his sermons and performed his miracles, and the Boswells, the Thrales, and the Hawkinses would all be exalted to the rank of prophets. Our age has somehow lost the art of making haloes; but a man may fairly be said to be a Saint when cabmen, who can scarcely be said to secrete Rasselas in their pockets, quote Johnson's sayings or invent Johnson's sayings on a wet night in the Strand, as a writer in the Times has lately heard them doing. Then, indeed, he has eaten his way into the fabric of life and performs all the functions of the gods, presiding over the fortunes of men, and inspiring, albeit he wears a wig, a snuff-colored coat, rolls as he walks, and has a gluttonous appetite for dinner. There can be no doubt—these two new editions, this abridgement of the famous biography show it—that Dr. Johnson has proved himself of the stuff that Saints are made of, and if we were to hazard a guess at the reason, it would be that he is one of the very few human beings who love their kind. Every other good quality is to be had in profusion; this alone is rare, as can be proved by counting those who can unanimously be said to possess it. One might begin with Christ and Socrates; add Shakespeare and Montaigne; perhaps Sir Thomas Browne. Then, if we confine our search to the British Isles, whom do we find? Milton is hopelessly out of the running; so are Wycherley, Swift, Pope, Congreve. The names of statesmen and soldiers do not leap to the mind. Pepys, for all his defects, is a possible candidate; Lamb stands as good a chance as any, but it is Dr. Johnson, the coarse, moody, rough-tempered man, who possesses, by virtue perhaps of his coarseness and his moodiness, the peculiar sympathy, the majestic tolerance, the broad humor, which, when he has been in his grave a century and a half, still make the cabmen think of him on a wet night in the Strand.
That this myth-making quality springs from some personal ascendancy, and has little to do with intellect or art is clear. People who have never read a word of Johnson's writings are inspired by this power in him to add to the myth from their own stores, by which means alone he is assured of immortality. His figure, at least, will never dry up and dwindle away; always somebody will be dabbing a fresh handful of clay on the surface. Whether the myth thus created will not, in process of time, altogether cease to resemble the actual man remains to be proved. The religion may entirely misinterpret the founder. But in Johnson's case the test is near at hand and easy to apply. There are his books—The Rambler, The Vanity of Human Wishes, The Tour to the Hebrides, The Lives of the Poets, and it cannot be denied that they fix and refine features which, under the influence of the myth-makers, tend to wobble and to spread. In the first place they make us revise that part of the legend which will have it, for the fun of exaggeration partly, that Johnson labored always under what Canon Ainger called "the Johnsonian incubus." He was pompous and sententious and Latin. It took all Lamb's genius to liberate English prose from the thrall. With this in mind we open The Lives of the Poets, and what do we find? A prose which, beside our daily diet of Times leaders and statesmen's letters, appears brief, pointed, almost elegant; which alights with all its feet neatly together for the most part and exactly upon its meaning; which indulges frequently in a thrust or lunge of phrase of the utmost vigor and vivacity. "Among this lagging race of frosty grovelers he might still have risen into eminence," and so on. The words occur in that life of Milton which is more often quoted as an example of the perversity of the great critic's judgment than of the grace and elasticity of his style. And he goes on, warped by one of those prejudices which tend to twist his judgment from the straight, to comment a little censoriously upon "a kind of respect, perhaps unconsciously paid to the great man by his biographers; every house in which he resided is historically mentioned, as if it were an injury to neglect naming any place which he honored by his presence." That respect is now far more profusely lavished upon Johnson than upon Milton.