The Biographer’s Art

The biographical part of literature is what I love most. —Samuel Johnson

I am halfway through a second reading of Boswell’s Life of Johnson. Put simply, it is a book you live in—jostling its characters over their glasses of port as they congregate around Johnson, discoursing upon subjects, witty and sublime. Boswell created a remarkable work which empathizes not only with the subject but, in a way, with the reader too. Says Hilaire Belloc

It has always seemed to me that in time of stress there are two kinds of reading to which a man may profitably turn for his recreation. The first is matter directly connected with the strain imposed upon him, the other is that sort of book which becomes immortal through a discursive character about it, so that you feel, while you read, as though you were engaged in conversation rather than upon literature…. For I could read Boswell in pretty well any circumstances, I think, save shipwreck (”Boswell,” Silence of the Sea).

I was introduced to Johnson, the Gargantua of 18th century English literature, through an old Rinehart paperback anthology. My fancy for this opinionated, oracular and brilliant old Tory was instantaneous. But it wasn’t until 1995 that I first dipped into the Life. It was the Penguin abridgement by Christopher Hibbert. A couple years later I read the whole thing. Along the way I picked up the Hebrides journals of Johnson and Boswell, which is a great appetizer for those who’re not ready to tackle the Life in its immensity.

Finally, I should mention Johnson’s Lives of the Poets in which he reveals himself to be a latter-day Plutarch. These capsule biographies are long out of print (look for the Everyman 2 vol. set), but I find them even more enjoyable than the moral essays, since they zoom in on flesh and blood subjects, with all their qualities delightfully highlighted against the background of the society they flourished in. As a bibliophile and aspiring author I find the life of any writer, no matter how obscure, to be fascinating, especially when related by a sympathetic genius like Johnson. There is no better instance than his study of the flawed savant, Richard Savage, an impoverished Grub Street colleague:

Some time after [Savage] had obtained his liberty he met in the street the woman that had sworn with so much malignity against him. She informed him that she was in distress, and, with a degree of confidence not easily attainable, desired him to relieve her. He, instead of insulting her misery, and taking pleasure in the calamities of one who had brought his life into danger, reproved her gently for her perjury; and changing the only guinea that he had, divided it equally between her and himself (Johnson, “Life of Savage”).

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