el Johnson (1709-1784) was the literary lion of his era. An essayist on many subjects, he was a moralist, lexicographer, biographer, editor and poet. In one of his best known essays, he expressed the opinion that "No species of writing is more worthy of cultivation" than biography. He felt that "every man's life may be best written by himself," but that if a biographer did the writing, it should be as close to the truth as possible. "If we owe respect to the memory of the dead, there is yet more respect to be paid to knowledge, to virtue, and to truth," he once said.
Johnson's good friend James Boswell followed this approach as he wrote his Life of Samuel Johnson. Although there were detractors, the book was both a critical and commercial success when it was first published and has been a classic of English literature for more than 200 years. Adam Sisman reveals the difficulties involved in the writing process in his enlightening and fascinating Boswell's Presumptuous Task: The Making of the Life of Dr. Johnson. Sisman demonstrates that "The story of Boswell's life as he wrote the epic Life of Johnson is itself an epic: in the process Boswell experienced an extraordinary degree of exhilaration and depression, pride, humiliation, confidence, doubt, satisfaction, hurt, loneliness, disillusionment and grief." A man of great ambition, Boswell had little to show for his efforts at the time of Johnson's death. Writing the biography "was his last hope of achieving anything worthwhile."Adam Sisman says "it was not Boswell the man that interested me, though he was a very interesting man, so much as Boswell the biographer." Sisman deals with such topics as why Boswell was attracted to Johnson as a subject, and the ways in which he went about his work. He was aware that he was breaking new ground, in part because biographies in his time were reverential toward their subjects. How did he cope with the many challenges, artistic and personal, that appeared before him?Sisman explores the crucial decisions that set Boswell's Life apart from other biographies of his time. For example, the first 53 years of Johnson's life are covered in less than one-fifth of the book. The remaining 21 years (after Boswell met Samuel Johnson) constitute more than four-fifths of the total. This, of course, allows Boswell to include himself as a "character" and gives the book what Sisman calls its "special flavour." A second crucial decision was to present Johnson's life "in scenes" as in a play, a technique that allowed the central character to engage in conversation, an art at which he was known to excel.
Of particular interest, too, is the probing of what we now know to be Boswell's extraordinary literary craftsmanship. For years Boswell's literary reputation suffered because he was regarded more as a stenographer than as a writer. But now that we have his journals, we know more about his techniques. He did have a remarkable, but not infallible, memory. He wrote memoranda of various conversations, but not often on the days they occurred. As Sisman says, "Boswell's skill was to sustain the illusion that what he wrote was just what Johnson had said. . . . His artistry concealed the extent of his invention. The naivetÅ½ he betrayed reinforced the sense of authenticity he wished to convey."He was, too, almost obsessed about the accuracy of what he wrote. And there were problems with the sensitivities of those who had shared memories of Johnson. Sisman says that "Boswell could never free himself from the delusion that people would not mind even the most unpleasant facts being published provided they could be shown to be true."Bringing the story behind the making of a masterpiece vividly to life, Boswell's Presumptuous Task offers a unique perspective on one of the classics of English literature. It's also a fitting tribute to the man who helped turn the biography into an art form.
Roger Bishop is a regular contributor to BookPage.