Reference > Cambridge History > The Age of Johnson > Johnson and Boswell > His Life of Johnson, with the Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, his enduring title to fame
  An Account of Corsica; His later life and labours; His death, and his posthumously published Letters  

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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.

§ 35. His Life of Johnson, with the Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, his enduring title to fame.


But, if Boswell without Johnson would have been forgotten, it was his own talent that gave the Life its surpassing excellence. Whenever he writes of Johnson, he succeeds in giving the impression that he saw things as they were, and not through the spectacles of his own personality. He never tried to conceal the part that he played; and yet, despite his vanities, and they were many, he knew how to make his readers think that they are looking at the facts for themselves. The very freedom from self-consciousness which was no help to his career was a great part of the secret of his skill in description. It also provided him with material denied to less sympathetic natures. “No man,” he said, “has been more successful in making acquaintance easily than I have been. I even bring people quickly on to a degree of cordiality.” Johnson, too, tells us that “Mr. Boswell’s frankness and gaiety made every body communicative.” He never tired of arranging new situations, in order to see what they would bring forth; and his interpretations of what he found are strong testimony to his insight into character and to his judgment. Minute as his observations are, he never offers a meaningless detail. It is easy to understand why Johnson made him postpone the Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, which was intended as a supplement to his own Journey. He had given “notions rather than facts”; but Boswell had contrived to make the facts give Johnson. The reproduction of his sayings and experiences was too minute to be published during his lifetime, and was more decently delayed till the year after his death. 43  The Life does not surpass the Journal in the sense of actuality; but it is a greater achievement. He had met Johnson only on some two hundred and seventy days, scattered over twenty-one years, and his material had to be gathered from many sources. He selects and arranges; he places his facts in the light and perspective that will create the situation; and Johnson lives in his pages. And he had the gift of the perfect style for his kind of biography—a style of no marked individuality, but easy, clear and flexible, which does its duty without attracting attention, and requires to be examined to have its excellence recognised.   55

Note 43. The Journal was revised by Malone while it was going through the press. Malone also revised the Life, and, on Boswell’s death, completed the preparation of the third and final edition. [ back ]

CONTENTS · VOLUME CONTENTS · INDEX OF ALL CHAPTERS · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD
  An Account of Corsica; His later life and labours; His death, and his posthumously published Letters  
 
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