A great biography by a man unfailingly willing to play Gracie Allen to his subject’s George Burns
The Life of Samuel Johnson. By James Boswell. Abridged and with an introduction by Bergen Evans. McGraw-Hill, 559 pp., $13.13, paperback.
Boswell’s Life of Johnson tends to scare people who haven’t read it and enchant those who have. Like Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, it is one of those books that is rarely mentioned independently of the name of its author, as though it required an intellectual struggle with both the subject and writer. And although this impression is misleading in all three cases, it is particularly so for this great biography of the 18th century’s leading man of letters.
The Life of Johnson is a book that might today result if the smartest blogger you know followed around the smartest person and recorded his or her thoughts and actions. After a brief look at Johnson’s early years, it takes the form of a diary of Boswell’s friendship with the adult Johnson. This means that you can dip into it almost anywhere with profit. Many of Johnson’s best-known observations are here, including that second marriage is “the triumph of hope over experience.” But so are many others that are similarly trenchant and apt. Among them:
On poverty: “… a decent provision for the poor, is the true test of civilization.”
On marriage: Marriage is “much more necessary to a man than a woman; for he is much less able to supply himself with domestick comforts.”
On being over 50: “I have now spent 55 years in resolving; having from the earliest time almost that I can remember, been forming schemes of a better life. I have done nothing. The need of doing, therefore, is pressing, since the time of doing is short.”
As the last comment suggests, Johnson was far from a soulless literary monument. For all his greatness and what some might see as pomposity, he had an appealing humility rooted partly in his Christian faith. And Boswell was his ideal biographer, a man unfailingly willing to play Gracie Allen to his George Burns, aware of his subject’s faults but loving him no less for them. After reading his great book, you might give a lot to have, in your entire life, one conversation as memorable as that which Boswell and Johnson when they dined on veal pie and rice pudding.
Best line: Spoken in 1775: “It is difficult to get literary fame, and it is every day growing more difficult.”
Worst line: Why quibble with genius?
Recommended if … you want to read one of the greatest biographies ever written, or enjoy authors with an epigrammatic style, such as Jane Austen or Henry James.
Published: 1791 (first edition), 1988 (McGraw-Hill edition).
Posted by Janice Harayda
(c) 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reseved.