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. …