The Subject of Biography

This past Monday I attended three of the sessions that were offered by the Boswell Book Festival, an annual event for which people generally gather in one city to attend, but of course which was held by videoconference this year. All three sessions were in fact very good, which I say not just as a throwaway truism or to be falsely polite. Many conferences of any kind often have so little to offer, and sometimes what is offered is either presented poorly or is a little thin on content, that even a happy optimist sometimes despairs.

The ones I attended were:

  • an interview of Andrew Marr about “Boswell the Man” (here)
  • an interview of Jane Ridley on “How to Do Biography” (here)
  • an interview of Ned Sedgewick on “Why & How to Become a Podcaster” (here)

I learned a little or a lot from each of them.

Boswell, for those who don’t know, was not the first and certainly not the last biographer of Sam Johnson, but his diligent following of his subject, and his writing up of detailed notes about Sam’s conversations and other activities — as well as a trip to the Scottish Hebrides they took together, lasting about three months — all that and more enabled Boswell to publish a stunning and even revolutionary biography in 1791. The book has its faults (what doesn’t?), it’s a bit on the longish side (hence the numerous modern abridged versions), but it’s generally a real pleasure to read. You learn almost as much about James and you do about Sam. Of the faults, some scholars have pointed out that Boswell only met Sam in 1763 when Sam was 53 years old. And you notice that in Boswell’s biography, the fifty-three years before their meeting taking up only about 20% of the book and the remaining twenty-one years taking up about 80%.

That first meeting itself is now famous in Johnson lore, as Boswell was nervous and Sam was his regular blunt and crusty self. They met in the back of Thomas Davies’s bookshop, and Boswell was anxious that Davies not tell Johnson where he came from, as Sam had a habit of joking about the Scottish (“The noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees, is the high road that leads him to England!”). Alas, Davies let the Scot out of the bagpipe, so to speak, which led to this exchange:

Boswell: Mr. Johnson, I do indeed come from Scotland, but I cannot help it.

Johnson: That, Sir, I find, is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help.

Sam didn’t actively dislike the Scots. I think of it more, to put it in modern comedy terms, as a “running gag” he had, a good repeated “bit” that he could drag out any time he wanted to be outrageous in company — or, in this case, to tease and silence a young Scot who was (or had been 🙂 ) eager to meet him. I’m not the first person to point out that though he defines oats in his Dictionary as “a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people,” yet all except one of the six men Sam hired as his assistants for that same dictionary were Scots.

That quip in the bookstore didn’t keep Boswell from his lifelong goal of writing Johnson’s biography, and nor did it keep the two men from becoming good friends. Sam was interested in Boswell’s life, and Boswell looked up to Johnson, depended on his wisdom, read his works for life advice. It’s a bit facile to put it this way, but Johnson filled in for the loving father which Boswell didn’t have. Boswell’s father was continually critical of and disappointed in his son (often with good reason), but Johnson always encouraged him.

The whole thing made me wonder about why biographers choose the subjects they do choose for their biographies. I explore that a little further in my podcast, if you’d like to hear 3 More Minutes about Sam.

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