When we last left John Eklund, he was rather ecstatic that he was finally tackling "The Life of Samuel Johnson." I've continued to put it off to another day. I did recently contemplate Stanley Elkin's first novel, "Boswell," which is about a modern-day version of Johnson's biographer. I wasn't even ready for that. So hats off to Eklund:
My last post on this project, about 250 pages in, was somewhat giddy with the sense of accomplishment that comes with plunging into a fat book about which you are ambivalent and sticking with it. I also made a few observations that struck me about the way bookselling and publishing was done in Boswell’s time, the similarity between Johnson’s early pamphlets and contemporary blogs, and the strangely familiar obsession with ownership of intellectual property that comes across in the book.
Reporting in from page 560 (of 1235, though over 200 of that is back matter and apparatus), I have to say that the going has gotten a bit tougher. Boswell has been credited with producing the template for our modern idea of biography, but it seems to me more a model for a certain kind of biography: the kitchen sink school. Nothing is too small to go unremarked upon- except perhaps the women and children in these men’s lives who, at least through the first half of the book, remain ghosts. And for Boswell, the smallest biographical detail or anecdote about Johnson still seems to call for a footnote to draw the innocent reader into an even more baroque narrative labyrinth. I shudder to think what Boswell would have made of hypertext. His pages would be nothing but hot links.
But reading Boswell’s Johnson is still more joy than chore. I marvel at the extensive documentation. In my job as a book rep, I’m expected to pass along to my presses all the brilliant comments made by the booksellers during our appointments. I struggle to find a surreptitious method to record these so as to not interrupt our flow like some mad scribe. When I give up and decide to just do it later from memory, the flavor is lost. Boswell, on the other hand, would have made a superb rep. Either he has an encyclopedic memory for dialog (and remember, these 18th century people spoke in full sentences- no “I was like’s”), or he had a fantastic imagination. His sourcing is meticulous.
Another important documentary resource that helps make the book so alive is the trove of letters Boswell has assembled. These two men and their vast circle of brainy acquaintances seemed to do nothing but write to each other. In volume, they remind me sometimes of a sustained, urgent email correspondence, but they must have been vastly more time-consuming. And they are vastly more erudite than most of the messages I get and send. As much as a profound early example of the biography form, this is a great monument to the power of a letter collection to make satisfying reading.
The bond between the two men is fascinating. Boswell (Johnson calls him “Bozzy”) was thirty years younger than Johnson, and though there was a distinct sense of mentorship and power imbalance in the relationship, there was also plain love. It’s expressed in such an unaffected way (i.e. “I love you”) that it’s a little startling. It violates our modern expectation of appropriate affection between heterosexual men.
One recurring unpleasantness I’m facing in the reading: Johnson was a jerk. Apparently he was known as a jerk far and wide. Boswell has assigned himself the task of redeeming Johnson’s nasty reputation, but this is not a whitewash. Some of the most entertaining bits are “he said/he said” arguments between the two. Boswell acknowledges Johnson’s frequently appalling behavior, his retrograde opinions, his slovenly personal life and habits. Yet somehow you come away sort of liking the man. He is what we might today call a right wing public intellectual. But he seems to relish taking contrary opinions for the sake of argument, and it’s sometimes hard to decipher what he actually believes. In this Johnson reminds me a little of H.L. Mencken, another right-wing blowhard who many of us love to read because he was so witty and argued so well.
So will I soldier on to the end? I’m in too deep to stop now. But I’m taking a break. There are just too many great fall books piling up and I can’t stand to look at them anymore without wading in. First up: Lorrie Moore’s new novel A Gate at the Stairs, the wait for which has been of Boswellian proportions.- John Eklund