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Boswells Presumptious Task

by Adam Sisman

Choice Sisman's biography of the famous biographer invites comparison with Peter Martin's A Life of James Boswell (CH, Apr'01). Whereas Martin gives roughly equal attention to all the phases of Boswell's life, Sisman dispenses with the years before his meeting with Johnson in a mere 19 pages, and the years he spent with Johnson in another 40. The author devotes the rest of the book to the years during which Boswell wrote Journal of a Tour (published in 1785) and especially The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791): the endless delays, the quests for inaccessible information, the personal disputes, the rivalries with other biographers, the emotional crises, and the frequent career disappointments. Sisman's Boswell is no mindless tape recorder but a dedicated (if too easily sidetracked) literary craftsman, working to shape a life into a narrative--and sometimes struggling with things that do not fit in a biography. Nothing here will be news to scholars, but the book is lively and accessible, and complements Martin's Life well. Highly recommended for general readers and undergraduates. J. T. Lynch Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, Newark

Copyright American Library Association, used with permission.

Library Journal Sisman, a former publisher and author of A.J.P. Taylor: A Biography, notes in his introduction that "Boswell was the first biographer to attempt to tell the whole truth about his subject...an aim we take for granted today, but in Boswell's time a startling innovation." One might consider Sisman's study an innovation as well. Unlike Peter Martin's A Life of James Boswell (LJ 1/90), it focuses not on reassessing a gifted writer considered by his contemporaries to be a "foolish failure" but on recounting the epic story of Boswell's seven-year struggle to write the book for which he would become famous. Noting that "it was not Boswell the man that interested meso much as Boswell the biographer," Sisman seeks to answer such professional questions as "What drew Boswell to Johnson in the first place?" and "Did his ideas change as his writing progressed?" The result is an intriguing study of how Boswell translated a life into art. Under Sisman's sympathetic hand, Dr. Johnson's "lackey" emerges as a brilliant storyteller who, with "meticulous care, with long-practiced skill, and with a generous imagination...crafted a character who lived and breathed." Recommended for public and academic libraries. Robert C. Jones, Central Missouri State Univ., Warrensburg Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

Copyright Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Library Journal Noted biographer Sisman (A.J.P. Taylor) here considers the most famous biographer of all. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

Copyright Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Book list Of course, this is a biography of James Boswell, the feckless Scotsman long conceived of as trailing after Samuel Johnson, literary dictator of eighteenth-century London, scribbling down whatever the great man said. But it is primarily the biography of that towering masterpiece of biography, Boswell's Life of Johnson (1791). The Life consumed Boswell, and he survived it by only four years. As inheritor of a prudent Scottish judge's land and acquisitions, Boswell fancied himself a laird, but he disliked Scotland's provincialism and spent as much time in London as he could. He was 23 when he met Johnson, who took a liking to him as to few others; indeed, Boswell was roundly liked, despite his bad habits--drinking and wenching. Sisman doesn't touch his vices much, emphasizing Boswell's bouts of depression as his most substantial handicap. For the Life, Boswell created the procedures of the modern biographer: tirelessly writing up his own experience with Johnson; collecting every letter and recollection of his subject; striving to verify every incident in Johnson's life; and shaping what he had gathered into a literary creation. He needed a partner, Edmund Malone, to coach and edit him, and the hectoring of friends to finish. But he did it, though it took another 200 years before his artistic accomplishment was fully recognized. Writing with immense assurance and suavity, Sisman has fashioned his own work of art in telling the story of Boswell's. --Ray Olson

From Booklist, Copyright American Library Association. Used with permission.

Publishers Weekly Aged 45, health waning from alcoholism, beaten to the press by rivals quick to exploit the death of literary icon Samuel Johnson in 1784, James Boswell finally began his ambitious biography two years later, in June 1786. For 21 years Boswell had been the acolyte of the creator of the great Dictionary and author of the influential Lives of the Poets. Boswell reconstructed his subject's life largely from his own proximity and other people's memories and documents. But, as Sisman points out, only the first fifth of the biography covers the 53 years of Johnson's life before master and pupil met. From that point on, the biographer is a major character in his own book. Evidently, as Sisman shows in analyzing the relationship of the two very different men, Johnson realized that he spoke for posterity each time he talked to the adoring Boswell, and that every particularity of his slovenly dress and gross behavior would be recorded. Indeed, Johnson comes alive in those and other minute details. Sisman (A.J.P. Taylor: A Life) focuses on the seven years late in Boswell's career when he finally disciplined himself to write the early masterpiece of biography. Even so, much of the credit, according to Sisman, is due not to the bibulous, prostitute-chasing Boswell, who often abandoned his tubercular, dying wife as well as his book, but to Shakespeare scholar Edmund Malone, Boswell's devoted friend. Malone kept the faltering biographer on task and despite failing eyesight painstakingly revised the ever-lengthening manuscript. When Malone was unavailable, the project languished. "I go sluggishly and comfortless about my work," Boswell confesses. "As I pass your door I cast many a longing look." While the pathos of Boswell's life lingers, Sisman's study will appeal largely to Boswell and Johnson aficionados. (Aug.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

Copyright Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.