Ellis Washington
On James Boswell and the life of Samuel Johnson
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By Ellis Washington
March 14, 2015

I hate mankind, for I think myself one of the best of them, and I know how bad I am.

~ Boswell

Biography of Boswell

James Boswell (1740–1795), was a Scottish lawyer, diarist, biographer and author born in Edinburgh, Scotland. He is celebrated for the classic biography he wrote on Samuel Johnson (1709–1784), a contemporary of Boswell and one of the leading figures of English literature, which Harold Bloom, a literary scholar and modern Johnsonian critic has acclaimed as the greatest biography written in the English language. One of the world's great biographers, diarists, and chronicler of enduring friendships, Boswell's surname (Boswell, Boswellian, Boswellism) is synonymous for a faithful companion and devoted observer, particularly one who chronicles those observations in writing. In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's novel, A Scandal in Bohemia, the Sherlock Holmes character confesses openly to Dr. Watson, "I am lost without my Boswell," thus his name rightly is preserved for the ages.

The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791)

Although Boswell envisioned writing his biography of Johnson as early as May 16, 1763 following their well-known first meeting, Boswell didn't actually start writing his biography until 1786, immediately after the death of Johnson. For that reason he scrupulously chronicled ideas noted in his diaries, from research, acquaintances of Johnson and from his prodigious memory everything related to his subject, and like a great stage manager of a Shakespearean play, Boswell skillfully played the role of prompter, to engage Johnson's full range of character development. Many of the most remarkable episodes in the book, for example the Tory Johnson's meeting with the John Wilkes, a devoted Whig Party member, were the result of Boswell's influence. To make what he referred to his "Flemish portrait" of Johnson, Boswell in an almost improvisatory manner allowed his subject to speak through his own voice, in letters, in soliloquy, in dialogue, rhetorically, thus employing enduring techniques of the dramatic play, the theatre and the grand themes in the novel to strengthen and animate his work.

Contrary to modern literary critics, Boswell does not always ignore Johnson's character weaknesses. As he expressed to Hannah Moore, "He would not cut off [Johnson's] claws, nor make a tiger a cat, to please anybody." Some of Johnson's biases Boswell made known to the public include his inflexibility, and his recurrent bullying of those he believed his intellectual inferiors. Nevertheless Johnson demonstrates compassion for those less fortunate, his friendliness inspired him to form many literary clubs, his realism, and his literary genius. Since Johnson knew all the significant writers his time, his biography likewise is an essential literary history of late 18th century England. Johnson's writings would have earned for him a high place in English literature even if he and Boswell had never met. Without their friendship, though, the picture we would have of Johnson today would have been viewed much more in opaque colors of black, white and grey rather than under Boswell's artistic vision of Johnson which offers the full spectrum of the rainbow.

Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D., far from being merely a transcript of various materials from those notes and journals, the biography is a superlative example of Boswell as an artist in biography, like the Renaissance master, Michelangelo in his grand themes, Monet in the kaleidoscopic range and subtlety of colors, or more likely Caravaggio, since both of these artists loved people and the joie de vivre (joy of life) to the fullest, thus Bowell was judicious in choosing what suited his requirements and objectives. Despite the fact that most literary critics of today believe that Boswell encroaches excessively into the biography, must now realize that Boswell made great efforts to delete many stories and narratives regarding Johnson in which the author featured prominently. Also, few biographers have enjoyed the access to their subject under such entertaining times while the subject was alive, therefore one must not ignore the history that in the course of Johnson's life, Boswell was Johnson's friend and expended from four hundred to five hundred days with his subject, consequently playing a central (if unintended) role in the grand, superlative play that was The Life of Samuel Johnson.

I am convinced that the primary reason why many literary scholars and historians of today find fault with Boswell's unconventional style besides the fact that in the unjust assessment of many that it's servile tone amounts to hagiography, is the fact that Boswell's original Life "corrects" numerous Johnson's quotations, removes many of the more unrefined statements, and generally disregards Johnson's early years. In fact, to a large degree Boswell constructs a rather mythic version of Johnson, or as William Dowling characterized Boswell's writing:
    "In a sense, the Life's portrayal of Johnson as a moral hero begins in myth... As the biographical story unfolds, of course, this image dissolves and there emerges the figure of an infinitely more complex and heroic Johnson whose moral wisdom is won through a constant struggle with despair, whose moral sanity is balanced by personal eccentricities too visible to be ignored, and whose moral penetration derives from his own sense of tragic self-deception. Yet the image never dissolves completely, for in the end we realize there has been an essential truth in the myth all along, that the idealized and disembodied image of Johnson existing in the mind of his public... In this way the myth serves to expand and authenticate the more complex image of Johnson."
Boswell and the slavery question

On March 13, 1787, a dinner was convened to convince William Wilberforce (1759-1833), a young member of the British Parliament and legendary future foe of slavery, to accept the leadership position as the spokesman for the Abolitionist cause in England. At the dinner was an array of England's finest citizens which other guests included Charles Middleton, Sir Joshua Reynolds, William Windham, James Boswell and Isaac Hawkins Browne. By the end of the evening, Wilberforce had agreed in general terms that he would bring forward the abolition of the slave trade in Parliament, "provided that no person more proper could be found." In May 1787 Boswell was also in attendance at the meeting of the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade again in an effort to convince Wilberforce to lead the abolition movement before the British Parliament. Nevertheless, the abolitionist Thomas Clarkson records that by 1788 Boswell "after having supported the cause... became inimical to it."

I found this change of heart by Boswell between the years 1787-88 to be curious and although I couldn't discover the actual reason why Boswell essentially betrayed his initial anti-slavery principles other than societal convention or status quo, or possibly out of petty jealously of the young upstart William Wilberforce and William Pitt and their collective audacity at challenging such an entrenched and socially acceptable institution as the slave trade. In an article Boswell published in the London Times on Wilberforce and the abolitionist movement, he admitted that Wilberforce used his speaking voice to great effect in political speeches. Boswell personally witnessed Wilberforce's moral authority and sublime eloquence in the House of Commons and noted: "I saw what seemed a mere shrimp mount upon the table; but as I listened, he grew, and grew, until the shrimp became a whale."

Yet Boswell would not remain a supporter of freedom and liberty for Black slaves, neither would he remain neutral on the slavery question. Boswell's most overt act of promoting the cause of slavery was his 1791 poem No Abolition of Slavery; or the Universal Empire of Love, which ridiculed the three most prominent anti-slavery proponents of his day – Thomas Clarkson, William Wilberforce and William Pitt. Reminiscent of the vile, anti-Semitic hatred and degenerate ideas the Nazis had regarding the Jews during the Holocaust and World War II, an Austrian journalist wrote shortly after Hitler's annexation of Austria, March 12, 1938: "If the Nazis are raping [Jews in] Austria, then they must like being raped." Likewise Boswell's poem promotes the common sentiments of the pro-slavery England of the 1700s, that the slaves actually enjoyed slavery, prompting Boswell to write this disturbing line in his poem: "The cheerful gang! – the negroes see / Perform the task of industry."

As much as I admire Boswell as a great literary figure, I couldn't imagine Boswell using his literary gifts to promote such an evil institution had he personally known just one Black slave during his lifetime and spoke to him eye-to-eye as a man, to hear his hopes and dreams for liberty for himself and his family, nevertheless much of England and America in the 1700s believed the Big Lie of Aristotle that some people "are slaves by nature" which during the Age of Enlightenment (1600-1800) came to primarily mean Black Africans. In his Politics, Aristotle infamously wrote, "For that some should rule and others but ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule." Tragically this diabolic idea did not die with the abolition of slavery in Europe and America, for this worldview exists under devout Islam and the rise of ISIS today.

Boswell in modern times

Boswell's 2-volume classic, The Life of Samuel Johnson, has since its publication in 1791, become the accepted standard of the intimate biography style despite modern criticism that both established the pattern of celebration for this opus and contempt for the writer. Boswell took great pleasure in his literary recognition, but always believed that he was a disappointment. His advanced years were progressively unfortunate. Increasingly his bizarre behavior appeared outrageous, even decadent for a man of 50, therefore his friends were ever more reticent to talk openly in his presence, believing that their conversations would be made public. Add to Boswell's growing disfavor with friends and acquaintances were his repeated bouts of drunkenness and raucous antics (he was never a private drinker) which made him a troublesome guest in most cases and a man to be avoided in polite company.

Nevertheless, from Boswell's singular genius expressed in his magnum opus The Life of Samuel Johnson, has for the modern age taught us not to take ourselves so seriously... to live a little, enjoy life for it is meant to be lived and lived vigorously. Boswell refused to be a slave to convention until ironically he bowed to convention by using his supreme literary gifts to support slavery and the continued abuse of his fellow Black brothers and sisters rather than standing strong on the side of history and morality with the legendary Abolitionists – Thomas Clarkson, William Pitt and William Wilberforce. This character flaw in Boswell gives me pause, yet also gives me a renewed respect for history, morality and carpe diem (seizing the day), for as Boswell famously confessed, I hate mankind, for I think myself one of the best of them, and I know how bad I am.

*N.B.: This essay is based in part on ideas from Encyclopedia Britannica Great Books of the Western World, Robert Maynard Hutchins, Editor-in-Chief (University of Chicago, 1952), Vol. 2, Chap. 14 – Custom and Convention; Vol. 2, Chap. 23 – Eternity; Vol. 3, Chap 87 – Slavery; Vol. 3, Chap. 99 – Wealth; Vol. 44 – Boswell.


Book Notice

Please purchase my latest opus dedicated to that Conservative Colossus, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Here are the latest two new volumes from my ongoing historical series – THE PROGRESSIVE REVOLUTION: History of Liberal Fascism through the Ages (University Press of America, 2015):
However, before the book is officially released to the public, I have to place 100 pre-publication orders (50 orders per each volume). I need your help to make this happen ASAP. Please place your order today for Volume 3 & Volume 4. Of course, if you can order all 100 copies today, the book will become official tomorrow.

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Invitation for manuscripts

I am starting a new a program on my blog dedicated to giving young conservatives (ages 14-35) a regular place to display and publish their ideas called Socrates Corner. If you know of any young person who wants to publish their ideas on any subject, have them send their essay manuscripts to my email at ewashington@wnd.com.

© Ellis Washington

 

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Ellis Washington

Ellis Washington is a former staff editor of the Michigan Law Review (1989) and law clerk at the Rutherford Institute (1992). Currently he is an adjunct professor of law at the National Paralegal College and the graduate school, National Jurisprudence University, where he teaches Constitutional Law, Legal Ethics, American History, Administrative Law, Criminal Procedure, Contracts, Real Property, and Advanced Legal Writing, among many other subjects... (more)

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