The publication last month of a lively biography, Boswell’s Presumptuous Task: The Making of the Life of Dr. Johnson , by Adam Sisman, has resulted in a remarkable critical consensus about 18th-century literature: James Boswell is readable, Samuel Johnson isn’t.
“Johnson’s works seem irrecoverably stranded in their time,” Miranda Seymour writes in the latest Atlantic . Without Boswell, Johnson “would scarcely be alive for us,” Richard Eder wrote in The New York Times , and Charles McGrath echoed that point in the Sunday Times Book Review , saying “we probably wouldn’t read much Johnson at all” if not for “Bozzy.”
This consensus seems to have as much to do with the two men’s personalities as it does with their work. It’s as if the superficial Boswell produced a kind of anticipatory screenplay about himself and Johnson, loaded with dialogue, that has survived into a cinematic age, while Johnson is a deadly moralizer who doesn’t make the cut. Mr. Eder compared Boswell’s work to the movie Beat the Devil , Mr. McGrath to “the buddy story.”
Mr. Sisman enables this approach by distilling (from the trove of Boswell journals and letters recovered only in the last century) a wonderful and bloody character in James Boswell–a quivering, hysterical ne’er-do-well who is constantly putting off his literary chores while treating himself for venereal disease.
He learns of his mother’s death in a Parisian newspaper in 1766. “Characteristically he spent that evening in a brothel,” Mr. Sisman records.
As for Samuel Johnson, he’s a stiff, a Christian moralist. Boswell is “sensibility”; Johnson is “sense.” We all know where we stand on sense vs. sensibility (reason vs. passion). No one likes sense, at least not in a movie character. Or in our memoirs either, which are all about fucking up. Boswell steps out of this new treatment “an almost heroic figure,” says Simon Winchester, who gave us another addled British literary-buddy story ( The Professor and the Madman ).
All this seems to me a little pat, and hasty–a way of shutting the door on the 18th century, which is now so very old, with an audit saying there’s one less guy you have to read.
In holding out for Johnson, I won’t try to run down the delights of Boswell’s Life . Charles McGrath is right: It anticipates New Journalism, it is filled with personal detail of a sort that was shocking to the 18th-century reader, and that still feels fresh. The dialogue is unbelievable. Or as Mr. McGrath writes, “We can already hear ourselves.”
It is also much too long (at 1,200-some pages), formless, generally witless, larded with obsequiousness, lacking judgment or synthesizing intelligence, and I bet few of the critics have actually read it through cover to cover. God knows I haven’t.
More important, the Johnson whom Boswell met and rendered was a distorted Oedipal figure.
Johnson was 53 and famous when he walked into the bookstore where Boswell, who was just 23, had been stalking him. Boswell then hung out with Johnson for the last 20 years of Johnson’s life. And though Johnson was an exciting character over that time–a pithy moral philosopher of the dinner table, maybe the greatest talker of all time, who could take your head off in an instant (“a celebrity,” as the Farrar, Straus materials for Mr. Sisman’s book so helpfully note), there was also something turgid and passionless about him. Which is why the critics are bailing. This guy’s stuffy.
They’re wrong. If Boswell is at last getting his Boswell, it is only fair to give Johnson his Johnson–to go to Johnson’s own youth, long before Boswell attached himself, when he was a tentative and phallic mama’s boy from the sticks who came to London and attached himself to a Great Poet. And by doing so, produced a buddy story of his own, a work that is as readable as anything that Boswell wrote.
I’m talking about the Life of Savage , which Johnson wrote when he was 34, and which Mr. Sisman largely ignores, as do the critics.
Richard Savage was nearly 40, and Johnson about 28, when the two met in London. On the surface, it would be difficult to find a sharper contrast. Johnson was tall, gawky, repressed, scarred in the face by tuberculosis, terribly shy, plagued by tics and married (hilariously) to a blowzy woman 22 years older than himself. Savage was small, elegant and a complete reprobate–a bastard and a murderer.
Ten years before, on a long drunken night in London, Savage had killed a man with his sword in a whorehouse and wounded a woman, as well. Only through the Queen’s intervention was Savage, who claimed to have royal parentage, saved from the gallows.
Savage’s claim to be the disinherited natural son of the Countess of Macclesfield was the spike of his existence. It gave him his most famous lines, in the poem “The Bastard”:
He lives to build, not boast, a generous race;
No tenth transmitter of a foolish face.
Feelings of blasted entitlement bedeviled Savage. He spent his life homeless. He constantly borrowed, and when he got a little money “withdrew to his darling privacy,” as Johnson put it, to waste it on drink and women. He had malevolent feelings for anyone who refused him a loan or asked for its return. Invited into people’s homes, he wore out their hospitality by keeping them up past midnight with talk. For once he’d heard an idea, it never left him–”a quality,” Johnson wrote, “which could never be communicated to his money.”
In 1743, he died a debtor in prison, after he had summoned the jailer to his side with tremendous urgency.
“‘I have something to say to you, Sir.’
“But, after a pause, [he] moved his hand in a melancholy manner, and finding himself unable to recollect what he was going to communicate said, ‘Tis gone!'”
Days after Savage’s death, Johnson announced his plans to write the poet’s life, and the book came out six months later. It contributed as much as anything to Johnson’s fame. Sir Joshua Reynolds, the painter who later formed a circle with Johnson, started reading the book as he stood against a mantelpiece, and finished it standing there, his arm having gone numb. Even today, you can almost do that trick. The Life of Savage can be finished in two spellbound sittings–unlike The Life of Samuel Johnson , which can never be finished.
The greatness of the biography is its descriptions of the artist’s life, and more particularly the galling relationship between egoist artist and powerful patron.
There was no doubt whose side Johnson was on. He called patronage “the tyranny of affluence.” Usually regarded as a respecter of the monarchy, he attacked the Queen for awarding Savage a pension that required him to write a poem of praise every year–”a kind of avaricious generosity,” he wrote, savagely, “to chain down the genius of a writer to an annual panegyric.”
For his part, Savage was a man of tremendous worldliness who ground his talent into dust with enraged pride.
“He perceived … how much is added to the lustre of genius by the ornaments of wealth,” Johnson wrote. “The great hardships of poverty were to Savage not the want of lodging or of food, but the neglect and contempt which it drew upon him. He complained that … his opinion in questions of criticism was no longer regarded when his coat was out of fashion; and that those who, in the interval of his prosperity, were always encouraging him to great undertakings by encomiums on his genius and assurances of success, now received any mention of his designs with coldness …. ”
Nobody knows you when you’re down and out. The Life of Savage is a sustained blues number, a song of human dignity, and in its regard for someone who totally did not give a shit, anticipates Bartleby a century later.
But for all its pathos, the biography cannot excuse its subject’s dissipation. “[H]e scarcely found a stranger whom he did not leave a friend; but it must likewise be added, that he had not often a friend long without obliging him to become a stranger.”
Johnson’s last line is deadly.
“… [N]egligence and irregularity, long continued, will make knowledge useless, wit ridiculous, and genius contemptible.”
Boswell taught us to expect just such moral incisiveness from his idol. The surprise of the Life of Savage is the passion, the identification that the upright Johnson felt for the amoral Savage.
The book sprang from a relationship far more interesting than Boswell and Johnson’s. At a critical time in Johnson’s development, he and Savage were very close. They were poor together. They stayed out all night together. They shared a love for talking about politics, literature and character.
And few question that Johnson and Savage also went whoring together. (Even Boswell, so anxious about the great man’s foibles, hints that Johnson fell down during those long nights with the charismatic Savage.)
In 1993, the writer Richard Holmes published a splendid book about the relationship, called Dr. Johnson & Mr. Savage , that is an explicit play on Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde . Mr. Holmes argued that Johnson was a man of tremendous passion, which he projected onto a double, Savage.
Mr. Holmes thinks it no coincidence that Johnson’s greatest subject (Johnson’s Johnson, as opposed to Boswell’s) should be such a dark figure of the night. Savage’s wild sexuality excited Johnson (maybe even homoerotically, Holmes suspects).
By the time Boswell knew Johnson, that passion was largely suppressed and sublimated.
“Boswell, whose Journals reveal how fascinated, amused and tortured by sex he was all his own life, could never really bear to envisage his sage in equivalent throes of lust or passion,” Mr. Holmes writes.
Passion is an important idea here. It’s hard for us to make our way through 250-year-old prose, and in rescuing literary figures from the 18th century, we need to make the writers into characters, celebrities preyed upon by passions.
Those are the terms under which Boswell is now being recovered, a wild figure who fucked around desperately and had trouble getting his work done. Mr. Sisman says that Boswell is a “proto-Romantic” figure, that he foreshadows the self-destructive characters of (the more accessible) 19th-century literature. In his book, Mr. Holmes makes the very same claim for Johnson’s Savage: He is “an archetype of the Romantic outsider and can be traced down through popular fiction …. ”
Passion by itself is not enough. As anybody who has read too many raw memoirs can tell you, inspiration soon gets boring. The best art requires something more: insight, detachment. In the Life of Savage , there are both.