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James Boswell (1740-1795).

The son of a devout and demanding Scottish judge, Boswell escaped to London with the impractical idea of getting an elite military commission. Instead he met Samuel Johnson, who became a surrogate father to him and the subject of Boswell's one great book, The Life of Samuel Johnson. Boswell was a constant recorder of his own activities, observations, and conversations. His innovation and strength as a biographer was the detailed, intimate, and apparently accurate accounts of conversations reconstructed from memory after a day or an evening spent with his subject. Boswell loved and sought out celebrities. He ingratiated himself to three of the most famous men of his age--Voltaire, Rousseau, and Johnson. His lifelong diary of his own experiences revealed not only the motivations for his actions but also his inner life of fantasy, his hopes and fears, his unstable self-image, and the games he played by adopting from time to time the personality of someone else. Thus Boswell left voluminous manuscripts in addition to the works published during his life. His journals and letters continued to be discovered, edited, and published during most of the twentieth century.

The Life of Samuel Johnson

When Boswell met him, Johnson was already fifty-four. Most of his works had been written, and he was already established as a great moral and literary authority. In fact, this is what attracted Boswell. For his account of Johnson's earlier life, therefore, Boswell had to rely on anecdotes and remembrances of Johnson himself and those who had known him. Boswell found a great deal of material and weighed it carefully before concluding what was factual. But the essence of his biography consists of the many encounters and conversations between Boswell and Johnson and the other members of the Club. Boswell even set up situations and "scenes" in order to provoke interesting comments and reactions from Johnson, which he, Boswell, then described. Boswell presents Johnson as a powerful mind, an almost heroic character. The passages that describe Johnson's peculiarities and rough manners only serve to emphasize, by contrast, his generous nature and precise insights. Samuel Johnson emerges as a bear of a man, eccentric and witty, but entirely humane. In its scope and detail, Boswell's Life of Johnson far surpassed any previous biographical study.

The mid-eighteenth century is a period of transition from the high wit and satire of earlier literature of the century to the sentiment of later literature. Johnson, although he seems to be a spokesman for the past age, also makes the transition. He welcomes the growth of the novel and encourages interest in new poetry. As a critic, he sorts out the valuable from the superficial and imposes a moral as well as an aesthetic standard of values. The image of Johnson, sharp-tongued but basically kind, was projected not only in his own works but also in the study of him made by his devoted admirer, Boswell.

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Author:McCoy, Kathleen; Harlan, Judith A.V.
Publication:English Literature to 1785
Article Type:Reference Source
Date:Jan 1, 1992
Previous Article:Samuel Johnson (1709-1784).
Next Article:Eighteenth-century English literature (1700 to 1785): lyric poetry.

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