On Boswell

I’m learning a lot of interesting stuff from Adam Sisman’s book Boswell’s Presumptuous Task — stuff about Boswell himself and about eighteenth-century culture. Sisman talks a lot about the state of biography in the eighteenth century, which is that it was a very new genre, and quite different from what we know today:

Literary biographies in Johnson’s time tended to be brief, usually consisting of no more than a summary of the external events of the writer’s life, often prefixed to an edition of his works. Few biographers attempted to probe the inner life of their subjects, to analyse the writings critically, or to illuminate the work in the light of the life.

What a change between now and then, right? People who wrote biographies were expected to hide the flaws of their subject, not to reveal them, much less to revel in them, as biographers sometimes do today. Johnson himself is partly responsible for a change in this belief; he was willing to reveal people’s faults in biographies he wrote, and he argued, “If we owe regard to the memory of the dead, there is yet more respect to be paid to knowledge, to virtue, and to truth.” Clearly, he’s not revealing failings in order to gossip or gloat over them, but in order to encourage his readers to learn from other people’s faults and to improve themselves.

Boswell followed this same method by trying to describe Johnson more fully than any of his peers would have, including flaws as well as strengths in his portrayal — and he caught some flak for doing it. People were upset at the personal details he revealed about Johnson. I haven’t read about the reception of The Life of Johnson yet, but I’ve read about people’s responses to an earlier work, The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, which foreshadows some of Boswell’s methods in The Life. This is what Sisman says about it:

The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides strikes the modern reader as such a natural, informal book that it is hard for us to appreciate how different and disturbing it seemed two hundred years ago. One aspect of the book that many of Boswell’s contemporaries found particularly difficult to accept was its record of private conversations. To them, Boswell’s behaviour in publishing these amounted to an abuse of Johnson’s trust and a betrayal of his friendship. It was not respectable; it was undignified. Furthermore, what had been tried once could be done again. If this new style of biography caught on, nobody would be safe, perhaps not even the King; everybody would be anxious that their remarks might be recorded and then published.

To be clear, Boswell isn’t revealing anything that would strike us as particularly personal — he’s simply recording everyday conversations and giving details of what Johnson’s appearance and habits. But this was too much for many readers — although his book sold well and people also reported enjoying it. It seems they were both shocked and amused and weren’t quite sure which response was stronger.

People’s worries about the new style of biography strike me as valid. The new biographical style did catch on, and nobody is safe because anybody’s private conversations can possibly be published (or posted online), and the famous are particularly vulnerable. We have crossed lines today that 18C people wouldn’t conceive of crossing. The only ones who seem to worry, though, are the famous who don’t want their lives broadcast to the world. One 18C person wrote, “the custom of exposing the nakedness of eminent men of every type will have an unfavourable influence on virtue. It may teach men to fear celebrity.” Things aren’t that simple — many do fear celebrity, but many seek it out, and many (myself included) put their personal thoughts out into the public realm without too much worry about seeming “undignified” (although some would call blogging undignified, I’m sure).

I’m not sure which practice is preferable — knowing more than we would ever want to know about people’s lives but also having our basic curiosity about others satisfied, or feeling that it’s unseemly to reveal too much personal information and keeping a veil up to hide the inner lives of others.


Filed under Books, Nonfiction

6 responses to “On Boswell

  1. yaeli

    Indeed. The biography is very much a “kiss and tell” affair these days. “Kiss” being, of course, very much an understatement. There’s an insatiable need to know everything, as much as possible, about everybody else but particularly about celebrities. Martin Amis’s autobiography, “Experience”, for example, has to include the story of the relative who was murdered by a serial killer, and of course details about his father, Kingsley’s personal life. And every celebrity has to publish an autobiography these days (most of them ghostwritten of course).

    I don’t know how it is in the US, but in the UK “reality” TV and “reality” biographies or “misery memoirs” are amongst the most popular forms of entertainment. Tiny details – particularly lurid ones – about famous people are eagerly sought after. Fame is priced above achievement, and people want to become celebrities at any cost – the exposing nakedness of eminent men of every type certainly doesn’t teach them to fear celebrity.


  2. Very interesting Dorothy! And you ask some good questions. Where to draw the fine line between public and private. How much information is too much information? I don’t think we’ve figured that out yet. It is amusing to think about how scandalous some of the things we don’t even blink at today were back in Boswell and Johnson’s time.


  3. Yaeli — it’s very much the same way here in the US where people are enthralled by reality TV and all that. You’re right — most people aren’t scared away from celebrity, but instead rather desperately seek it.

    Stefanie — yeah, it’s very difficult to figure out how much information is too much information, and that’s a question every blogger faces and has to sort out. I know from my own experience that it’s complicated and has to be answered over and over again in different posts.


  4. Sometimes I think it depends on who the subject is and why we want to know. Reading about the minutiae of someone’s life a couple of hundred years ago can be educational and informative in a way that is not too sensational (well, then again it might have been sensational at the time). But at the same time I don’t know that I really want to know every last detail about other people’s lives–it can seem intrusive. Writing biographies can be sort of weird–unless you were like Boswell and knew the subject fairly intimately, how can you really write about them knowledgeably? It’s all pretty interesting really.


  5. Funny that you’re reading & thinking Boswell. So have I been, in “The Essential Boswell”, selections from his journals & letters. My husband and I have just posted a letter from Boswell to his wife at our other site, http://www.lettersoftheday.blogspot.com. There’s also an unrelated 19th century letter that talks about the indignity of seeing great men in, as it were, their pajamas — due to such reading of personal letters and/or biographies!


  6. Fascinating post! I tend to think that people’s private lives should be just that. The tabloids annoy me here with the way they make up (and most of it is untrue) salacious details and sell them to people’s voyeuristic curiosity as something they ‘ought’ to know. If people choose to reveal themselves, well, that’s fine; you don’t have to read it. I’m all for life stories and think they are fascinating, but I do think there’s a line that divides what is useful and interesting to know, from what is too intimate.


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