Considered revolutionary in its day, Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson
is to the biography what Tom Jones
or perhaps even Tristram Shandy
are to the novel. Instead of writing a deferential and ponderous account of Johnson's public life, Boswell renders a vivid picture of the complete man, incorporating conversations and personal letters into what is often considered the greatest biography yet written. Though its considerable heft may seem daunting to the modern reader, The Life
compels by the force of first-hand accounts and copious observation. The most cogent portions involve Johnson in the last quarter of his life, as Boswell did not make Johnson's acquaintance until the latter was in his mid-fifties. This fact is the book's most oft-cited criticism, since Johnson is remembered more as a sagacious socialite than the poverty-stricken writer that he was for most of his life. The Life of Samuel Johnson
may have immortalized Johnson, but it equally promotes Boswell. Adopting a narrative style that leans toward the self-conscious, Boswell makes himself something of a hero, viewing Johnson in a novelistic frame and achieving (in the words of Claude Rawson) 'a sharp penetration of character, a fine sense of climax and anticlimax, and a graphic economy of portraiture.' Of this, Johnson would heartily approve, for he once famously said, 'biography is, of the various kinds of narrative writing, that which is most eagerly read, and most easily applied to the purposes of life.'
An Eighth Day View:
The most celebrated English biography is a group portrait in which extraordinary man paints the picture of a dozen more. At the centre of a brilliant circle which included Burke, Reynolds, Garrick, Fanny Burney and even George III, Boswell captures the powerful, troubled and witty figure of Samuel Johnson, who towers above them all. Yet this is also an intimate picture of domestic life, which mingles the greatest talkers of a talkative age with the hero's humbler friends in a picture which is, before all things, humane.
As a young man about London, James Boswell was obsessed by literature, and, on a fateful day in 1763, he attached himself with unswerving tenacity to the dominant literary figure of his age--the splendidly rotund, articulate, and humane Dr Samuel Johnson. What followed was the most famous of friendships between writers and the bais for the remarkable documentation contained in Boswell's "Life of Samuel Johnson," the greatest and most compelling of all biographies.
(Book Jacket Status: Not Jacketed)