Boswell's Turn

By Allen, Brooke | The Hudson Review, Autumn 2001 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Boswell's Turn

Allen, Brooke, The Hudson Review

JAMES BOSWELL, AUTHOR OF THE GREATEST BIOGRAPHY in the English language and one of the most amusing men of his own or any other time, was for many years considered little more than a fool, a toadying sycophant who achieved his literary effects not through any creative effort of his own but from a painstaking fidelity to his great subject: he was, it was held, merely a sort of glorified stenographer.'

This image was captured cruelly in 1831 by Thomas Babington Macaulay, who influenced generations of readers. Macaulay began by praising the work: Boswell, he allowed, "is the first of biographers. He has no second. He has outdistanced all his competitors so decidedly that it is not worth while to place them. Eclipse is first, and the rest is nowhere."

But the book, in Macaulay's vision, seems to have generated itself without any particular effort from its author. For Boswell himself, Macaulay continued,

was one of the smallest men who ever lived ... a man of the meanest and feeblest intellect . . . servile and impertinent, shallow and pedantic, a bigot and a sot, bloated with family pride, and eternally blustering about the dignity of a born gentleman, yet stooping to be a talebearer, an eaves-dropper, a common butt in the taverns of London .... He was always laying himself at the feet of some eminent man, and begging to be spat upon and trampled upon .... There is not in all his books a single remark of his own on literature, politics, religion, or society, which is not either commonplace or absurd.

There was just enough truth in Macaulay's judgment for it to be taken as the whole truth. It is always risky for an intelligent man to play the buffoon, and this was a role in which Boswell strutted shamelessly throughout his life; even in his own day he was considered a bit of a joke. To Horace Walpole he was "the quintessence of busybodies"; to Edward Gibbon "an ugly, affected, disgusting fellow [who] poisons our literary club to me." Even those who loved him and valued his company-Johnson, Sir Joshua Reynolds, his collaborator Edmund Malone-found it hard to respect him. "You are longer a boy than others," Johnson remarked when Boswell was well into his thirties.

Naivete, bumptiousness, drunkenness, an almost pathological indiscretion, and a willingness, even an eagerness, to play the stooge: these were Boswell's dominant social qualities, and they were not ones calculated to win the respect he craved, perversely, throughout his undignified life-"Be retenu," he often urged himself, in vain. Reflecting upon the ideal of dignity and reserve of behavior, he reflected that "in my opinion . .. it is a noble quality. It is sure to beget respect and to keep impertinence at a distance. No doubt... one must give up a good bit of social mirth. But this I think should not be too much indulged, except among particular friends."

This was nothing but vain philosophy; social mirth was in fact Boswell's most valuable gift, and it was one he used more wisely than his contemporaries, or in fact he himself, could have known. Had he succeeded in arriving at the high dignity to which he claimed to aspire, the world would have been the poorer, for, as Macaulay pointed out rightly enough, he had little if any talent for abstract thought, and none whatsoever for his chosen profession, the law. "I sometimes," he wrote as a young man, "indulge noble reveries of having a regiment, of getting into Parliament, making a figure, and becoming a man of consequence in the state. But these are checked by dispiriting reflections on my melancholy temper and imbecility of mind."

The real bed-rock of Boswell's genius was his infectious ebullience. "Mr. Boswell's frankness and gaiety made every body communicative," as Johnson wrote after the two men toured the Hebrides together. Had he been born in the twentieth century with its flourishing and lucrative celebrity industry, Boswell would never have had to slave away at a profession for which he was manifestly unsuited, but would no doubt have commanded a fat salary as a contributing editor to Talk or Vanity Fair, a sort of superduper Dominick Dunne.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)


1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Cited article

Boswell's Turn


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.