It’s often bothered me that history books become more thorough as they progress through time, so that if one were to bookmark off each decade or century, one would observe a kind of exponential growth. Almost everything works this way, so I guess there’s little fighting it. I am less than fifty pages into the second of six volumes of Boswell’s Life of Johnson, and already Johnson is fifty eight. Their first meeting is recorded, with charming precision, at the end of the first volume, May 16, 1763. Boswell panicked: “I do come from Scotland but I cannot help it.” He was twenty three, and Johnson fifty four.
Perhaps it shouldn’t be, but it’s surprising to me just how much that is famous appears in this first volume: There is the dictionary, and the definition of oats, “a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people,” to which Boswell records the reply, “And where else will you see such horses, and such men?” Johnson gets involved with a hoax, the Cock Lane ghost, and Boswell is at pains to explain that Johnson wasn’t as credulous as some claimed. So too to make clear that he wasn’t really sadistic in conversation; the insults are just too memorable. And of course there is his refutation of Berkeley, which is better in the full telling than I remembered. He does not merely kick the stone, but struck “with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it.”
Boswell’s lengthy descriptions of Johnson’s unusual person and mannerism, as well as his depressive turn of mind, make for a vivid account, both of Johnson himself and of Boswell trying to reconcile his partiality for his friend with biographical truth. For example, in the course of describing nights in the public houses with Johnson, Boswell reports that he affected not to be troubled by cold and rain but adds, “The effects of weather upon him were very visible.” Boswell takes mild issue with the melancholy of Johnson’s novel Rasselas, quoting Voltaire “Apres tout c’est un monde passable” but he admits that “Where ignorance is bliss, ‘tis folly to be wise,” is, “in many respects, more than poetically just.” What marvelous circumlocution.
It’s hard to imagine what we’d have if Johnson had been “entirely preserved” as Boswell speculated. From the many years before Boswell met him, we might have learned more about Johnson the parliamentary reporter. In his time, magazines carried highly idiosyncratic accounts, sometimes inventing speeches like Thucydides and sometimes hiding the identities of the speakers and even the real subject of debate. There would be more about the nights when Johnson (despite being married, and to a much older woman) was so poor he spent all night walking around London with the disreputable poet Richard Savage. Perhaps we would have more of the Johnson who knocked down the “impertinent” bookseller Osborne with a heavy book and throttled him.
I have a long way to go in The Life of Samuel Johnson, and I’m rather looking forward to it, chronologically biased as it may be. The Club, which at various times included Oliver Goldsmith, Edmund Burke, and Edward Gibbon, is only just getting started. Then there is their trip to the Hebrides to look forward to. I’m also looking forward to learning more about Boswell, who, at least in age, at this point in the narrative, I have more in common with. If I am still curious about him afterwards, I could always read his journals. These were only published in the twentieth century, and perhaps constitute one of the great recoveries of literary history.