James Boswell forever changed the genre of biography when he painstakingly transformed a scholarly profusion of detail into a perceptive, lifelike portrait of Dr. Samuel Johnson.
James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson reveals a man of outsized appetites and private vulnerabilities and is the source of much of what we know about one of the towering figures of English literature. Boswell spent a great deal of time with Johnson in his final years and from his scrupulously accurate memory and copious journal was able to faithfully record the brilliance and wit of Dr. Johnson’s conversation. Boswell’s aim and achievement was completeness; no detail was too small for him. On this point Dr. Johnson remarked to him, “There is nothing, sir, too little for so little a creature as man.” Boswell’s thirst for detail makes this indisputably the finest of many biographies of Johnson.
This biography gained its unique place in literary history from the fact that its style was revolutionary. The usual style of biographers of that era was to record dry facts from the subject’s public life only. Boswell differed by incorporating actual conversations of Dr. Johnson, which Boswell had previously noted down in journals, and by including many more details of personal life. The result revolutionized the genre.
For both its subject and its style, The Life of Samuel Johnson is still popular with modern critics and students of the history of English thought and of English literature.
“The most famous single work of biographical art in the whole of literature.” (Walter Jackson Bate, American literary critic and biographer)
“The effect of [this] biography is also similar to that of War and Peace or Anna Karenina. Just as those novels provide a social history of Russia, so the Life serves as a portrait of late 18th-century England. On the title page Boswell claimed that his book exhibits ‘a View of Literature and Literary Men in Great Britain, for Near Half a Century,’ and the book has shaped posterity’s view of Johnson’s literary world quite as much as it has created an image of Johnson himself.” (Masterpieces of World Literature)
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This is it. Life in the 1700s
Great book, bad recording.
- Peter Thomas McNeely