When the Great Bear was dead the literary flock swarmed about him to draw some sustenance from his corpse. Boswell himself did not hurry; he worked for seven years on the Life; but he issued in 1785 his Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson; it reached a third edition in one year. Hester Thrale Piozzi had gathered material about Johnson’s words and ways; now, from these Thraliana, she compiled Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson, LL.D., during the Last Twenty Years of His Life (1786). The little book presented a less amiable picture of her guest than she had drawn day by day in her diary; doubtless the final letters of Johnson had left a lasting wound.
Next in the arena—barring a dozen entries now forgotten—was The Life of Samuel Johnson, published in five sumptuous volumes by Sir John Hawkins in 1787. Hawkins had had sufficient success as an attorney to be knighted (1772), and sufficient learning to write a good History of Music (1776). He joined with Johnson in organizing the Ivy Lane Club (1749), and was one of the original members of “the Club.” He left this after an argument with Burke, which caused Johnson to dub him “an unclubbable man”; but Johnson remained his friend, often sought his advice, and appointed him one of the executors of his will. Soon after Johnson’s death a group of booksellers asked Hawkins to edit an edition of the Doctor’s works, and to introduce it with a biography. This was criticized as revealing Johnson’s faults without mercy, and Boswell later questioned its accuracy; but “the charges against it cannot be sustained in a fair hearing.”164 Nearly all the faults ascribed to Johnson by Hawkins were noted by other contemporaries.
Mrs. Piozzi returned to the feast with Letters to and from the Late Samuel Johnson (1788), all fascinating, for Johnson’s letters (except the last one to his lost lady) were far more humane than his speech. Meanwhile Boswell was laboring patiently, between lawsuits and carouses, on what he was resolved to make an incomparable biography. He had begun to make memoranda of Johnson’s conversation soon after their first meeting (1763); he planned the Life as early as 1772; so lengthy and laborious was this gestation. He rarely took notes on the spot, and he could not write shorthand; but he made it a principle to jot down, on returning to his room, his memory of what had happened or had been said. He began writing The Life of Samuel Johnson in London on July 9, 1786. He ran about the city seeking data from Johnson’s surviving friends. Edmund Malone, the Shakespearean scholar, helped him to sort out his huge chaos of notes, and buttressed his courage when Boswell, broken down by dissipation, grief, and the death of his wife, seemed about to abandon himself to women and drink. Boswell wrote in 1789: “You cannot imagine what labor, what perplexity, what vexation I have endured in arranging a prodigious multiplicity of materials, in supplying omissions, in searching for papers buried in different masses, and all this besides the exertion of composing and polishing. Many a time have I thought of giving it up.”165 He took from William Mason’s Life and Letters of Gray (1774) the idea of interspersing his hero’s letters with the story. He deliberately accumulated details, feeling that these would add up to a full and vivid picture. The fragments were woven into a chronological narrative and a consistent whole.
Was he accurate? He claimed to be. “I am so nice in recording him that every trifle must be authentic.”166 Where we can check his report of Johnson’s words with other accounts it seems factually correct, though not verbatim. A comparison of his Notebook with the Life shows that Boswell turned his own summary of Johnson’s speech into direct quotation, which he sometimes expanded, sometimes compressed, sometimes improved,167 sometimes purified, elongating certain four-letter words to respectable proportions. Occasionally he omitted facts unfavorable to himself.168 He did not claim to have told the whole truth about Johnson,169 but when Hannah More begged him “to mitigate some of Johnson’s asperities,” he replied that he “would not cut off Johnson’s claws, nor make a tiger a cat to please anybody.”170 Actually he revealed his master’s faults as fully as others had done, but in a large perspective that reduced their prominence. He tried to show as much of the complete man as affection and decency would permit. “I am absolutely certain,” he said, “that my mode of biography, which gives not only a history of Johnson’s visible progress through the world, and of his publication, but a view of his mind in his letters and conversations, is the most perfect that can be conceived, and will be moreof a Life than any work that has ever yet appeared.”171
At last it came from the press, in two large volumes, in May, 1791. It was not at once recognized as a unique treasury. Many persons resented Boswell’s reporting of their private conversation, not always admirable: Lady Diana Beauclerk was able to read how Johnson had called her a whore; Reynolds saw where Johnson had reproved him for drinking too much; Burke learned that Johnson had questioned his political integrity and had thought him capable of picking up a prostitute; Mrs. Piozzi and Mrs. Elizabeth Montagu winced. “Dr. Blagden,” wrote Horace Walpole, “says justly that it is a new kind of libel, by which you may abuse anybody by saying some dead person said so and so of somebody alive.’’172 Others found the detail excessive, many letters trivial, some pages dull. Only gradually did England realize that Boswell had achieved a masterpiece, and had given some nobility to his life.
His father had died in 1782, leaving him Laird of Auchinleck with an income of £ 1,600 a year. He proved to be a kindly master, but he was too accustomed to city life to remain long in Auchinleck. In 1786 he was admitted to the English bar, and thereafter he spent most of his time in London. Reynolds portrayed him in that year—confident and insolent, with a nose fit to ferret out any secret. At times his wife accompanied him to London, but usually she lived at Auchinleck. There she died in 1789, aged fifty-one, worn out by the care she had given Boswell and his children. He survived her by six years—years of deepening degradation. He tried again and again to overcome his need for liquor, but failed. He died in London May 19, 1795, aged fifty-six, and his body was taken to Auchinleck for burial. His sins are at present in the public mind, but we shall forget them when we read again the greatest of all biographies.
Looking back over this eighteenth century in English literature, we perceive that it was above all a century of prose, from Addison, Swift, and Defoe to Sterne, Gibbon, and Johnson, just as the seventeenth century was an age of poetry, from Hamlet and Donne to Dryden and Paradise Lost. The rise of science and philosophy, the decline of religion and mystery, the revival of classic unities and restraints, had chilled the warmth and clogged the flow of imagination and aspiration; and the triumph of reason was the defeat of poetry, in France as well as in England. Nevertheless the vitality and versatility of England’s prose literature in the eighteenth century amply compensated for the frigid formality prevailing in its verse. Through Richardson and Fielding the novel, which had been, before them, an episodic concatenation of picaresque adventures, became a description and criticism of life, a study of manners, morals, and character, more illuminating than the records of the historians, who lost the people in the state. And what literary influence could equal, in that age, the effect of Richardson on Prévost, Rousseau, Diderot, and Goethe?
If the literature of England in the eighteenth century could not equal that of the seventeenth, or match the Elizabethan flight, the total life of England recovered its upward swing after the failure of national courage and policy in the Restoration. Not since the defeat of the Armada had England felt such a surge of enterprise and politics; the years from the rise of Chatham to the death of his son saw the Industrial Revolution put England far ahead of its rivals in economic inventiveness and power, and saw the English Parliament conquering continents while checking its kings. Now the immense British Empire was built, now the halls of the House of Commons rang with such eloquence as Europe had not heard since Cicero. Now, while France bankrupted itself to free America, and decapitated itself to realize its dreams, England brought all its resources of mind and will to evolve without revolution, and enter the nineteenth century, in economy and statesmanship, victorious and supreme.