Deconstructing Boswell’s classic Life of Johnson, former publisher Sisman reveals the process of making of this unique book and addresses fundamental questions about the nature of biography.
Sisman presents Boswell primarily in his role as friend and biographer of Samuel Johnson. Born into a family of Scottish gentry, educated in law, and craving recognition as a writer, Boswell met the renowned author when he was 22, and this fateful meeting became a turning point in his life. Gradually, Johnson became for Boswell a means of making sense of his own life, of achieving popularity for himself in the glow shed by his celebrity friend, and of gaining access to the heart of London’s literary and artistic circles. Over the course of their 21-year relationship, Boswell and Johnson repeatedly met in London, traveled in Scotland together, and exchanged many letters. Although distressed by the fact that his mentor did not mention him in his will, Boswell nevertheless eagerly volunteered to be Johnson’s biographer after his death. He initially published his journal documenting their tour of the Hebrides, which was marked by a strikingly innovative, informal tone—as well as surprisingly coarse details. This new style of biographical writing culminated in 1791 with the monumental Life of Johnson. Sisman describes the many obstacles that arose on Boswell’s path toward the completion of this project: uncontrollable bouts of drinking, whoring, and gambling, the death of his wife, and the failure of his political career. Throughout the text, Boswell accorded his own persona an unabashedly prominent position beside his main subject. Overall, the Life was a success, but the same characteristics that made the book so entertaining also provoked criticism: Boswell was reprimanded by many a prudish biographer of the day for going overboard in exposing Johnson’s idiosyncrasies, slovenly behavior, and hot temper. Over time, however, such probing into the great author’s inner life elicited increasing appreciation, as Boswell’s new breed of biography took root in European letters.
Sisman draws inspiration from Boswell, exposing for the reader the inner mechanism of a masterpiece creation, and never hesitating to provide lurid details about Boswell himself.