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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

VIII. Johnson and Boswell

§ 33. Boswell’s earlier experiences and Writings

The merits of Mrs. Piozzi and Hawkins were united and augmented by Boswell. He had been collecting material since his first interview in 1763. He had told Johnson his purpose by 1772, and he had spoken definitely of his Life in a letter of 1775. After Johnson’s death, he set to work in earnest and spared himself no trouble.

  • “You cannot imagine,” he wrote in 1789, “what labour, what perplexity, what vexation I have endured in arranging a prodigious multiplicity of materials, in supplying omissions, in searching for papers buried in different masses, and all this besides the exertion of composing and polishing: many a time have I thought of giving it up.”
  • But he was confident in the result. It was to be not merely the best biography of Johnson, but the best biography ever written.

  • “I am absolutely certain,” he said, “that my mode of biography, which gives not only a History of Johnson’s visible progress through the world, and of his publications, but a view of his mind in his letters and conversations, is the most perfect that can be conceived, and will be more of a Life than any work that has ever yet appeared.”
  • When the book at last came out, in May, 1791, the same confidence was expressed in the opening paragraphs. There, he admits that the idea of interspersing letters had been taken from Mason’s life of Gray. He had made a careful study of the art of biography; and the Anecdotes of Mrs. Piozzi, which had shown the necessity of a careful handling of intimate material, and the facts of Hawkins, which had proved the inadequacy of simple narrative, had reassured him that he was engaged on the real life of his friend.

    Johnson owes much to Boswell; but it was Johnson who gave us Boswell. His life is the story of failure turned to success by an irresistible devotion. He had always been attracted by whatever won the public attention, partly from scientific curiosity, as when he visited Mrs. Rudd, and partly with a view to his own advancement. In the first of his letters, he says that Hume “is a very proper person for a young man to cultivate an acquaintance with.” He comes to know Wilkes, but doubts “if it would be proper to keep a correspondence with a gentleman in his present capacity.” The chief pleasure that he foresaw in his continental tour was his meeting with Voltaire and Rousseau. Then, he proceeded to Corsica and became the friend and enthusiastic champion of Paoli. Having received a communication on Corsican affairs from the earl of Chatham, he asks: “Could your lordship find time to honour me now and then with a letter?” Again, he is found thinking of a life of lord Kames and satisfying himself that “he has eminence enough to merit this.” There was cause for the sturdy laird of Auchinleck to complain, according to Sir Walter Scott’s anecdote, that his irresponsible son was always pinning himself to the tail of somebody or other. But, of all his heroes, Johnson alone brought out the best qualities in his volatile character, and steadied him to the worthy use of his rare gifts. When Johnson is absent, his writings possess no remarkable merit, though they have always the interest of being the pellucid expression of his singular personality. The Life is the devoted and flawless recognition of an influence which he knew that his nature had required.