Mentoring and Mimicry in Boswell's Life of Johnson

By Lee, Anthony W. | Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation, April 1, 2010 | Go to article overview

Mentoring and Mimicry in Boswell's Life of Johnson

Lee, Anthony W., Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation


On Good Friday, 17 April 1778, Samuel Johnson and James Boswell sat alone together in Johnson's house at Bolt Court. As the conversation turned to travel writing, Johnson expressed his reluctance to publish an account of his recent trip to France with the Thrales, explaining that he had nothing new to say about France. Boswell demurred:

I cannot agree with you, Sir. People would like to read what you say of any thing. . . . And, Sir, to talk to you in your own style (raising my voice and shaking my head,) you should have given us your Travels in France. I am sure I am right, and there's an end on't.'

This exchange suggests a number of valuable points about the Johnson-Boswell mentoring relationship and its implications for the formulation of Johnson's legacy by one of his major literary protégés.2 The contrary position each writer assumes in this brief debate reveals a fundamental difference of attitude toward writing. Johnson affirms that content and substance, what the writer says, is of primary significance, while Boswell suggests that the primacy of the reader's interest - especially as expressed in the personal style of the author - lies in how it is said. Johnson's perspective is founded upon an essentially cognitive, and ultimately didactic, view of writing; Boswell's is more aesthetic, beckoning toward the voyeuristic thrill he finds prying into the personal privacies recessed behind Johnson's public voice. Johnson asserts that the substance of what a writer has to say forms the ultimate basis of authorial legacy, implicitly discounting Boswell's appeal to the charismatic attraction of the personality and reputation. These dichotomies reveal a key issue facing Boswell as he constructed his greatest literary achievement, The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791). The imposing magnitude of Johnson's personality threatens to dissolve Boswell's own authorial integrity, his effort to claim his independent voice and authorial identity. Boswell's voice is in danger of being obscured by Johnson's precisely because of the immensity and brilliance of his biographical subject. His problem is a doubly acute one, for not only does Johnson occupy the center of Boswell's most important literary project, The Life of Johnson, he also served as Boswell's key literary mentor.

One strategy Boswell uses to handle this issue is the frequent insertion of his first-person voice into the narrative. Boswell, at various points, speaks in tones of reverential awe about Johnson, disagreeing with Johnson, comparing himself to Johnson, distancing himself from Johnson, and so forth. Boswell furthermore actively defends himself before the judgment of the reader for many of his authorial decisions and opinions, just as he frequently goes on the attack against his perceived (or real) rivals and enemies. Readers of the book entitled The Life of Samuel Johnson find a wide and perhaps unexpected proliferation of information about Boswell. James T Boulton and T. O. McLoughlin have recently astutely commented upon Boswell's self-projection when discussing his handling of an earlier biographical subject, Pascal Paoli:

The fashioning of so admirable a picture of Paoli goes hand in hand with another process, notably in the "Journal": Boswell's projection of himself. Boswell plays a key role while seeming marginal and self-effacing. . . . While seeming to play down his role as but the recorder of the great man's conversations, he subtly centres himself as the voice narrating Paoli, leading him on, reading him, projecting him as a leader in the classical heroic mould.3

This maneuver enhances Boswell's portrait of Johnson, even as his vigorous projection of himself onto the reader's attention serves to create a space for Boswell's own literary persona. However, there is another strategy at work to establish the authority of Boswell's voice and persona, one more subtle but significantly more potent than the often clumsy verbosity marking Boswell's self-aggrandizing gestures: that of mimicry. …

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