A Singular Being

James Boswell: The Earlier Years, 1740-1769

by Frederick A. Pottle
McGraw-Hill, 606 pp., $12.50

James Boswell
James Boswell; drawing by David Levine

Of course Boswell is worth a biography. We know so much about him that the sheer welter of material demands to be pressed and shaped into a whole; it is like having a ton of clay lying idle in one’s back yard. Add the sheer number of famous men whom he knew, and you have a respectable reason for studying him; add his furious sexuality, and he automatically becomes a pet of the mid-twentieth century. And then his open, eager, defenseless temperament, always ready to blab out the truth however discreditable, makes him at once a favorite with the public that enjoys reading Herzog or Henry Miller’s Tropics.

Even allowing all this, it is still the primary task of a biographer of Boswell to convince us that Boswell’s interest is more than ancillary, that he would still claim our attention if he had never met Johnson. Professor Pottle has been improving his knowledge of Boswell for over forty years; in 1929 he brought out a book, much consulted ever since, which assembled the bibliographical materials for a life of Boswell under the title The Literary Career of James Boswell, Esq. Though he tells us, in the Introduction to the present volume, that in 1929 he had no “very active intention” of writing a Life, it might reasonably have been predicted that, if spared, he would ultimately try his hand. It is not in human nature to make a systematic survey of the materials for a biography and then leave to other people the pleasure of actually writing it. As a rule, this length of research, this consistency of devotion, are bad omens. They lead to an absorption in the minutiae of the subject, an unargued assumption that everything about the central figure is of interest, leading straight to the over-documented, suffocating, academic biographical edifice, stuffed with trivialities offering themselves proudly as evidence of devoted investigation. So the first thing to be said about Professor Pottle’s book is that it is free of any such taint. Through all the years he has worked on Boswell, he has kept his sense of perspective.

THE SECOND THING that needs to be said is that the present study takes us only up to Boswell’s twenty-ninth year, and (unless there is something I have missed, lying about in very small print) contains no hint that there will be a second volume. Surely Professor Pottle does not intend to give up now? We must try to encourage him. He must not turn us aside with Johnson’s answer: “No, Sir, no man is obliged to do all that he can do. A man is to have part of his life to himself.” If he stops here, then every subsequent biographer of Boswell will be guided and escorted by Pottle till 1769 and then suddenly flung into a lonely freedom that will probably unsettle his reason.

Underneath all the…

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