Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
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Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
 
Critical Introduction by Henry Craik
James Boswell (1740–1795)
 
[James Boswell, son of a Scotch advocate who was raised to the Bench under the name of Lord Auchinleck, was born in 1740, and educated in Edinburgh. Having already made some literary essays, and become acquainted with the literary notabilities of the Scottish capital, he came to London (for which he had conceived a great attachment in an even earlier visit) in 1762, chiefly to obtain an introduction to Dr. Johnson, whom he already reverenced by reputation. From 1765 he resided for some time abroad, and found access to Rousseau, and through him, to Paoli, the assertor of Corsican liberties, with whom he lived for some time, and of whom and the island of Corsica he wrote an account in 1768. He pursued his profession as advocate intermittently: but his chief occupation was the cultivation of literary society, especially that of Dr. Johnson, with whom he made a tour in the Hebrides, of which he published an account in 1785. He continued to be the intimate and observant friend of Johnson until the death of the latter in 1784, and published his biography in 1791. Its success was immediate: a second edition was published in 1793: and a third was in preparation when Boswell died in 1795.]  1
 
WHATEVER may be our opinion of Boswell, either as to character or as to intellect, the praise must be universally conceded to him of having produced the very best book, in its own kind, which the world has seen. This is no small achievement. As a man he was full of weaknesses and vanity: intellectually, he was in many respects poorly equipped: and the contrast between such a man and the work he has produced, has not unnaturally given rise to paradoxes to account for the phenomenon. To Macaulay, it seemed enough to say that he was great because of his very weakness: while Carlyle found the secret of his success in the enthusiastic devotion of his hero-worship. Each view, presented to us by such men, commands attention, and embodies one aspect of the truth: but even when we set aside all paradox, the consummate success of Boswell may be explained upon more solid literary grounds. He had an ardent, even a consuming desire to become acquainted with men of light and leading: and he not only discerned his prey with marvellous acumen, and pursued it with indomitable perseverance, but he was evidently possessed of certain gifts which secured for him their toleration, if not their regard. His success in these efforts dated almost from his boyhood; and besides that circle that surrounded Johnson, to which Johnson’s protection gave him access, he managed to form an acquaintance with three men in very different spheres, who can have had few common friends—Hume, Voltaire, and Rousseau. That the obedient henchman of Johnson should have found something to admire in each of these, proves that Boswell was something more than a docile adulator, with an exaggerated amount of curiosity. Eminence of any kind had for him an instinctive attraction, which was something very different from toadyism or servility. He was indeed a curious instance of a man whose insight into character, whose discrimination of motives, whose sense of intellectual distinctions were out of all proportion to his ability in all other matters. This instinct was aided by all the resources of boundless gaiety and good humour, which ingratiated him with his victims, and made them ready to endure all his follies and absurdities with infinite toleration. He was the very opposite of a narrow man. His sympathies were keen and quick: and if his character was formed on somewhat of a petty scale, yet it contained all the variety of moods that gave full play to these sympathies. He had enthusiasm, and melancholy; vague aspirations after speculation; stirrings of patriotic feeling; a spasmodic religious sense; and a considerable tincture of romance. All these qualities were no doubt coloured by a vanity which gave them something of the burlesque: but none the less it was by them that there ran through Boswell’s personality a certain chord of sympathy that made it resonant to every note of feeling. His observations were absolutely different from the mechanical exactness of literary photography: they were guided by an instinctive discrimination, and made real and vivid by the skill of an artist.  2
  It is true that Boswell’s success owes something to those features of his character which move our contempt. His self-respect was completely swallowed up in vanity, and the result of this is that he writes with a freedom and self-abandonment, with a carelessness of the judgment that may be passed upon him as a man, which only such freedom from self-consciousness as it is given to very few men to attain, could ever equal. Just as his vanity gives to his work the same effect as want of self-consciousness, so the perfection of his ingenuous pedantry gives to it the effect of humour. No man who was without humour could tell a story with the skill of Boswell; but it is his unconscious humour which amuses us most. A sentence such as this—“Belief is favourable to the human mind, were it for nothing else but to furnish its entertainment. An infidel, I should think, must frequently suffer from ennui”—is uttered by Boswell with perfect solemnity. But how near it comes to what might have been said by a master of humour!  3
  Boswell, then, possessed in perfection some essential qualifications for the biographer—discernment, discrimination, the eye of an artist, a keen sense of literary proportion. His way was made easy for him by good humour, and an unbounded love of society, and his vanity made him impervious to any rebuff, however crushing. His keen sympathy enabled him to penetrate the motives of men, and he had enough of literary skill to convey the impression of a character or of an incident with dramatic reality. In spite of all his weakness, his folly, his dissipation, and the essential shallowness of his character, he had earnestness of purpose enough to force him to untiring perseverance in his task. The perfection with which that task was accomplished was partly the result of practice. Few now read Boswell’s journal of his conversations with Paoli; but in these we have, less fully developed, all the discriminating minuteness, all the happy selection, all the deft literary portrait-painting, which reached their climax in the famous biography. Wonderful as it is that a man so compact of folly and vanity, so childish and so weak as Boswell, should have produced a book which has enforced the admiration of the world, yet we need not explain that book as a literary miracle. Its success is achieved by the usual means—insight, sympathy, skill, and perseverance; and its author had served an apprenticeship to his art before he began his greatest work.  4
  The chief features of Boswell’s work are to be found in his methods and his treatment, not in any distinctive quality of his style. Considered merely as prose, it is careful and correct. When it attempts to be eloquent, it generally becomes inflated and absurd, without any loss of entertainment. The influence of his Mentor is, of course, visible in every page; but whether of set purpose or not, that influence is not so marked as Boswell’s contemporaries probably expected it to be. He had a good ear for the rhythm of prose, and his literary taste doubtless told him that obtrusive imitation of Johnson’s style would be out of place in his biography. Boswell cultivated, like many of his contemporaries, a somewhat formal style; but he could descend from the formality when the narrative required it. And, while he saw clearly how absurd were the common notions of Johnson’s style, he could occasionally hint a criticism where his hero lapsed into ponderosity. In the Account of Corsica he affected a peculiar and somewhat pedantic orthography, and describes himself “as one of those who are curious in the formation of language in its various modes.” “If this work” he proceeds, in a characteristic vein, “should at any future period be reprinted, I hope that care will be taken of my orthography.” But his literary eccentricities went no further.  5
 
 
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