The Life of Samuel Johnson, Part 1 of 2

If Adams' is the original autobiography, this is the prototypical biography. Samuel Johnson was a respected man of letters in the 18th century, and his life was written by his great friend and traveling companion James Boswell. I've been looking forward to reading this for many years, because there are so many references to Dr. Johnson's travels scattered throughout historical fiction. So I am extraordinarily disappointed to find it so boring. Boswell came to know Johnson in the later part of his life, after he had achieved professional success. Therefore the early years, in which he struggled, are sketched in from other sources. After Boswell comes onto the picture, the 'life' degenerates into a seemingly endless string of dinners, conversations, letters, and road trips. I have heard much of their famous trip to the Hebrides, but because their earlier books sold so widely, Boswell refrains from discussing it and merely refers readers to their previous publications. The letters are sometimes frustrating - I know this is a life of Johnson, not Boswell, but he would have done better to provide some basic facts about his family for context. Johnson constantly harps, in his letters, on Boswell's wife's dislike for him - is he joking or serious? Given the purported slovenliness of his personal habits, I wouldn't be surprised to find he was an unpleasant houseguest. Obscure references to Boswell's offspring also distracted me with wondering whether he lost a child at one point.

Johnson was famous as a conversationalist and Boswell (exhaustingly, slavishly, adoringly) details their club parties and Johnson's bon mots. Unfortunately the cultural context for many of them seems to have faded, leaching most them of their piquancy. I am getting the greatest value from the description of their literary circles, which is really, well, not all that interesting.

There are another 12 cassettes in 'part 2' of the 'Life' so I sure hope something happens in the last part of Johnson's life. Otherwise I might fall asleep at the wheel and end up in a ditch.

1 comment:

Patti said...

Ah, so this must be the cause of the bike accident!