by Susan Taylor Block
I was mesmerized when I first read James Boswell’s famous Life of Johnson in 1971. Biographer Boswell followed the words and movements of Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) like a hungry dog watches his master prepare to feed him. Johnson, who was created from a different sort of recipe, gave Boswell plenty to write about. Today, the book still fascinates me, but in different ways. After making my own modest attempts with biographies of local interest, I know how difficult it is.
In 1971, I took notes on all the Johnson quotes that most interested me, and it was fun to read through the list again just a few days ago. Here’s a small sampling:
“Your manuscript is both good and original; but the part that is good is not original and the part that is original is not good.
“Prejudice, not being founded on reason cannot be removed by argument.
“The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
“The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.
“Poetry is the art of uniting pleasure and truth.
“Read over your compositions and, when you meet a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.”
I added a few more Johnson quotes that are recent favorites:
“A man should keep his friendships in constant repair.
“it is better to suffer wrong that to do it, and happier to be sometimes cheated than not to trust.
“A cucumber should be well-sliced, dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out.
“…for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned.”
In 1974, I went on the first of my only two trips to England. Like hordes of tourists, Boswell’s work and Johnson’s being made me want to see a place in which the latter lived. I enjoyed touring Dr. Johnson’s house at 17 Gough Square and the Cheshire Cheese pub nearby, where he was thought to have spent many happy hours. “There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern,” said he.
“The guide at Dr. Johnson’s house was a delightful little lady who was way past American retirement age. She had encyclopedic knowledge of Johnson – whether delivering her usual speech, or answering tourists’ questions. Much of what she said came straight from James Boswell’s extraordinary biography. Without it, Dr. Johnson would still be known as creator of the astounding lexicon, A Dictionary of the English Language; writer of plays, biographies, critiques, and poems; and author of the amazing travelogue, A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, but he would not be loved as a person we felt we almost knew – and few tourists would bother to track down his home.
Over time, I’ve come to appreciate James Boswell more and more. He made it look so easy. His particular manner of questioning, hasty scribblings, careful inscriptions, and exhaustive visual studies of another human being combined to allow him to paint a portrait in words that is so complete that it has no rival in secular writings. It spares little, including Dr. Johnson’s many eccentricities, and his quirky movements, now considered the earliest, best description of the medical condition labeled later as Tourette’s Syndrome. Other biographers continue to tackle Samuel Johnson, and I have enjoyed reading some of those books, too, but the electricity is not there. The congenial situation of the men’s trip through the Hebrides; the combination of their intellects, wit, and curiosities; and Boswell’s unabashed fascination with Johnson keep the book alive.
Then, after all of that – after unleashing a great waterfall of words concerning Samuel Johnson – Boswell still had enough inexpressible impressions left over to write, “Every man feels for himself, and knows how he is affected by particular qualities in the person he admires, the impressions of which are too minute and delicate to be substantiated in language.” The biographer said so well what cannot be said. The spirit of some personality interrelations just speaks of things we cannot yet know.
I think I’ll read that book again.