Self-Hugging

Andrew O’Hagan

  • Boswell's Presumptuous Task by Adam Sisman
    Hamish Hamilton, 352 pp, £17.99, November 2000, ISBN 0 241 13637 7
  • James Boswell’s ‘Life of Johnson’: Research Edition: Vol. II edited by Bruce Redford and Elizabeth Goldring
    Edinburgh, 303 pp, £50.00, February 2000, ISBN 0 7486 0606 8
  • Samuel Johnson: The Life of an Author by Lawrence Lipking
    Harvard, 372 pp, £11.50, March 2000, ISBN 0 674 00198 2
  • Dr Johnson's London by Liza Picard
    Weidenfeld, 362 pp, £20.00, July 2000, ISBN 0 297 84218 8

One of the general effects of hero-worship is its tendency to marshal resentment in those who claim themselves no party to the admiration. A good example of this offers itself at the opening of Vanity Fair – ‘A Novel without a Hero’ – when the single-minded Becky Sharp, high in a coach bound for Russell Square, flings a copy of Johnson’s Dictionary out of the window to land on the grass at the feet of her former teacher, a sworn disciple of the Great Lexicographer. ‘So much for the Dictionary,’ says Becky Sharp as the carriage pulls away, ‘and, thank God, I’m out of Chiswick.’

Admiration is defined by Johnson in that Dictionary as ‘taken sometimes in a bad sense, though generally in a good’, and he was, for the greater part of his life, a great engine of self-admiration, as well as a copious begetter of admiration in other people. Yet none that loved him could easily match the love of James Boswell, who puttered along for many years, joyously, drunkenly, boisterously, earnestly, with his love of Dr Johnson both a wondrous act of worship and a curious kind of self-loving. Arm in arm on their way up the High Street, Boswell and Johnson were a couple of cut-purse narcissists, the very heart of their union a common hankering after fame. No two figures in British literature – not Wordsworth and Coleridge, not Auden and Isherwood, not Holmes and Dr Watson either – so humanly combine a delight in the sweetmeats of being with the fears and rigours of moral enquiry. The friendship of these two was geological: the shifting plates of their characters, the spouting gas of their conversation, their red-hot efforts to strike a deal with respect to futurity, have left them large and lively on the page. Boswell, a slovenly, scribbling, lovable Scot, and Johnson, a cantankerous old genius, a John Bull himself, now appear to us as creatures of one another’s making. Together they constitute a minor archipelago of literary selves.

In the past it seemed natural to admire one at the expense of the other, and most natural of all, to see Boswell as the tittle-tattling toady to the illustrious wisdom of the Great Cham. This case was most damagingly pressed in the 19th century by Thomas Babington Macaulay, who saw Boswell as a wine-bibbing, plate-licking reprobate, the very smallest of men, who somehow wrote a great biography by accident. This view has been corrected somewhat by the serial publication of Boswell’s private papers, which ended up at Yale after a great adventure involving many bales of handwritten papers turning up in the attics of grand houses, and which, together, show Boswell to have been a biographer, and an autobiographer, of enormous pizzazz and originality.

Boswell’s way of talking about himself can seem to us very modern: pre-Freud and pre-tabloid, he talks in a shockingly open way about the nature of his own (and other people’s) desires, affections, tribulations and thoughts of death. He also suggests the quality of his own delight. He is a self-watcher and a self-hugger. And his way of looking at other people – including Johnson – reveals him to be a harbinger of the documentary techniques and psychological modes of enquiry we now take for granted. In his excitement at the prospect of the examined life Boswell invented modern biography. He wrote like hell, and the full fragrance, the authentic buzz, of his own life and period, such as it was, rises with Flemish exactness from every other sentence he chose to write down.

Boswell’s biography of Samuel Johnson is a call-to-arms for all makers of literary lives, and Adam Sisman, previously a biographer of A.J.P. Taylor, has taken on a genuine task, a presumptuous task indeed, to write a biography of the biography, in the hope of casting light on the very real subject of how to make a biographical subject real. His book is successful in ways that might draw attention to the failures of others; in his winningly breezy account of how Boswell came to write his big book we find ourselves closer than ever to a proper sense of the biographer’s art. In Sisman’s account, a life dedicated to the Life of another can be a life well lived, and in Boswell, a life-maker if ever there was one, he identifies the recording angel’s recording angel, a man with a tender regard for the moments and hours that make up an exemplary life.

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[1] Allan Beveridge, ‘Teetering on the Verge of Complete Sanity’ (J.R. Soc. Med., Vol. 93, August 2000). The article quotes Edward Hitschmann's contention that Boswell had a psychopathic personality. ‘His mood,’ Hitschmann writes, ‘fluctuated from wild optimism and elation to abject despondency … Whereas previous generations have damned him as a self-regarding fool and supported Johnson’s dictum that one should not openly discuss one’s mental afflictions, Boswell has found a new audience in our time, with its preoccupation withm the self and personal fulfilment.’

[2] Peter Martin’s A Life of James Boswell (Phoenix, 624 pp., £14.99, 2 November 2000, 1 84212 167 7) is a rigorous and fair-minded account of the subject, with an apparent objectivity which works well, but not in the Boswellian way.

[3] This edition is published by Edinburgh in this country.