Reading Boswell’s Life of Johnson

Yesterday I finally finished reading James Boswell’s Life of Johnson. I can’t remember when I started reading the Life of Johnson, but it was probably during the 1990s. I bought a used copy of a paperback edition, which I believe I found at the Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts; and that edition is a 1987 reprint; so I must have begun reading after 1987. And I was obsessed with eighteenth century New England history during the 1990s; reading Boswell’s account of one of the most interesting lives of mid-eighteenth century London fit right in with that obsession. So it has taken me about two decades to finally finish reading all 1,400 pages of the book.

I made pretty good progress at the start: as I recall, I read the first third of the book in a few weeks; this part of the book takes place before Boswell actually met Johnson, and it takes the form, more or less, of a narrative. But after this first third of the book, my progress slowed. I would read two or three of Johnson’s conversations, as recorded by Boswell, and I’d have to pause — pause to appreciate the beauty of the language, and to think about what Johnson said. A page of my handwritten notes remains between pages 986 and 987 of the paperback, and I copied out this passage in full:

[Sat. 25 June 1763]

After having given credit to reports of his [Johnson’s] bigotry, I was agreeably surprized when he expressed the following very liberal sentiment, which has the additional value of obviating an objection to our holy religion, founded upon the discordant tenets of Christians themselves: ‘For my part, Sir, I think all Christians, whether Papists or Protestants, agree in the essential articles, and that their differences are trivial, and rather political than religious.’

Rereading this, I can see why I thought it worthwhile to copy this out by hand.

Johnson was prone to fits of melancholy — today we would probably call him depressive, an unlikable and clinical word — and on this same page of notes I copied out this brief passage:

[Thurs. 21 July 1763]

Against melancholy he recommended constant occupation of mind, a great deal of exercise, moderation in eating and drinking, and especially to shun drinking at night.

Today, Johnson would be sent to a psychotherapist who would prescribe for him an anti-depressant drug, which might well have ended Johnson’s melancholy. But Johnson and his contemporaries had a different understanding of human nature than do we, we who have been so influenced by Freud and his successors: Johnson and his contemporaries believed human will is stronger than we do, and they would hold that there is a moral dimension to our selves which drugs cannot cure or address.

By the time I got to page 987 of the paperback edition, that book was showing signs of wear: the covers were bent and floppy, the back pages were stained by water or some liquid, and I didn’t dare open the book too far for fear the flimsy paperback binding would crack. So I put the Life of Johnson aside, and didn’t return to it for a decade or so. But I kept thinking about it, and I kept looking for another, more durable, edition of the book to read.

In some used bookstore, I found a beautiful 1924 hardcover edition published by Oxford University Press; on the flyleaf a previous owner wrote, in an upright but somewhat cramped hand: “Elizabeth Cowell Alderton / 465 Main Hall / Vassar College”. I paid only four dollars for this book, which makes me wonder if I bought it at Upstairs Books in New Bedford, probably in 2005, right after we moved to New Bedford. I began reading a few pages before bed at night; not every night, but many nights; Boswell and Johnson became my late evening companions. This was a good thing to do before falling asleep: though I increasingly found myself disagreeing with Johnson’s religious and political conservatism, he thought so well, and his conversation was so brilliant, that he made me think better. And Johnson’s abruptness and his uncompromising and belligerent attitude were softened by Boswell’s warmth, and by his love for his hero.

Once I resumed my reading of the Life of Johnson, I began reading related books: a recent biography of Boswell, a recent biography of Johnson, Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland and Boswell’s A Tour to the Hebrides, Boswell’s London diary, excerpts from Johnson’s Rambler and Idler. I tried reading Johnson’s Rasselas, found it slow going, and gave up.

But the Life of Johnson remained my bedtime reading for the past few years: a few pages a night before bed. I slept better; the book put me into a clam and rational state of mind; I think I was less troubled by anxiety dreams; I wonder if too much exposure to Freud and his successors causes our unconscious minds (if the unconscious mind even exists) to have too much power over us. At last, though, I got to the point in the book where Johnson is obviously dying. Boswell sees him for the last time: they have their last conversation, during which Johnson is both profound and witty, and then comes one of the most affecting passages in English literature:

He embraced me, and gave me his blessing, as usual when I was leaving him for any length of time. I walked from his door to-day, with a fearful apprehension of what might happen before I returned. [May, 1783]

Soon thereafter, Johnson had a stroke, and other maladies set in; the book became too sad to read before going to sleep, and yesterday morning I sat down and finished it in the full light of day. I can’t help but seeing the many weaknesses of the book, and of the moral system it describes; but I like to think the book improved both my mind and my moral sensibility. Whether or not that is true, it brought to life the vigorous, forceful, uncompromising personality of Samuel Johnson, and the warmer, more yielding personality of James Boswell. And I wonder when I’ll start reading it again.

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