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Over the Dark River

Dr. Johnson & Mr. Savage

by Richard Holmes
Pantheon, 260 pp., $23.00

In Footsteps (1985), Richard Holmes records his first, salutary, disillusionment as a self-styled “Romantic Biographer.” In 1964, when only eighteen, he undertook to duplicate Robert Louis Stevenson’s journey through the Massif Central of France in the autumn of 1878, the trek subsequently described in Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes. Wisely, remembering Stevenson’s struggles with the recalcitrant Modestine, the young Holmes declined all offers of a donkey. Otherwise, he was scrupulous about reliving Stevenson’s experience, journeying alone, along exactly the same demanding route, eager to see what his predecessor had seen, comparing his own thoughts and impressions at every step with those of the man who had walked this road almost a century before. It was at Langogne, not far along the way, that he was pulled up short.

Holmes had worked himself by now into an almost hallucinatory state in which he believed “that Stevenson was actually waiting for me, in person,” a traveling companion about to greet him from some café, hotel window, or village crowd:

And then I saw it, quite clearly against the western sky, the old bridge of Langogne. It was about fifty yards downstream, and it was broken, crumbling, and covered with ivy. So Stevenson had crossed there, not on this modern bridge. There was no way of following him, no way of meeting him. His bridge was down. It was beyond my reach over time, and this was the true sad sign.

Only after a long, troubled night did Holmes accept that just as one could not cross such bridges any more, so “one could not cross literally into the past.”

The broken bridge at Langogne gave Holmes his first real insight into the biographer’s task:

You could not play-act into the past, you could not turn it into a game of make-believe. There had to be another way. Somehow you had to produce the living effect, while remaining true to the dead fact. The adult distance—the critical distance, the historical distance—had to be maintained. You stood at the end of the broken bridge and looked across carefully, objectively, into the unattainable past on the other side. You brought it alive, brought it back, by other sorts of skills and crafts and sensible magic.

Although he was forced to abandon, at Langogne, his youthful fantasy about actual converse with the dead, Holmes’s biographical “skills and crafts” have remained those of the hunter: a man tracking “someone’s path through the past,” engaged in “a following of footsteps” that is literal as well as symbolic. He has always insisted upon visiting places of any significance for his subjects, especially those in which (however temporarily) they lived. Even when the house itself has disappeared, something may be learned from its situation, and the view its windows once embraced. His first major biography, appropriately entitled Shelley: The Pursuit (1974), led him across France, Switzerland, Italy, England, Wales, and Ireland on the trail of that very peripatetic poet. After it came Footsteps, describing other biographical pilgrimages. Dr. Johnson & Mr. Savage, his most recent book, is again haunted by the sound of footsteps: in this case those of two strangely ill-assorted men walking all night, deep in talk, through the deserted squares and streets of eighteenth-century London—Holmes himself (at the inevitable historical distance) eagerly just behind.

Unlike many of his fellow biographers, Holmes has never wanted to injure his quarry, let alone bring it down. He avoids writing about anyone he dislikes, just as he scrupulously avoids contemporary figures. When the occasional animus does appear (toward Byron, for instance) it is invariably directed at people on the periphery of his books, their chief fault often that of being less sympathetic than Holmes himself to his central figures. Self-identification with one’s subject, he has stated, is “the first crime in biography.” Personal engagement with people in the past is a different matter, and for Holmes it has always been essential. Convinced that the relationship between biographer and subject—like that between biographer and reader—must be one of “trust,” he seems perpetually torn between the objective, judicial approach he knows he must maintain, and a craving for intimacy so strong that sometimes (as with the Shelley circle) it makes him feel cruelly shut out from actual participation in the lives he explores. “There is something frequently comic about the trailing figure of the biographer,” Holmes has confessed in Footsteps: “a sort of tramp permanently knocking at the kitchen window and secretly hoping he might be invited in for supper.”

Revealingly, at one point in that book, he worries whether “some imbalance, or lack of hardened identity,” in his own character might be responsible for hankerings of this kind. Yet this troubled empathy with his subjects has produced a series of remarkable biographical studies. Paradoxically perhaps, certainly unfashionably, Holmes treats individual selves as autonomous and organically unified. Indeed, he has become increasingly convinced not only of “the integrity of human character,” but of the biographer’s ability to present a coherent view of human affairs. Every human life, he has claimed, however “ordinary,” deserves its biographer. But Holmes himself has never been drawn to ordinary lives. Stevenson, Mary Wollstonecraft, Shelley, Claire Clairmont, Coleridge, and Gérard de Nerval were highly extraordinary individuals. With all of them, moreover, Holmes has felt impelled to act as advocate for the defense: restoring Claire Clairmont to what he insists is her rightful place beside Shelley; attempting to disentangle the fascination and brilliance of Coleridge’s personality from the mess of his life, or rejecting the stereotyped Shelley of Matthew Arnold’s famous description—“beautiful and ineffectual angel, fluttering in the void his luminous wings in vain”—in favor of a figure “darker and more earthly,” crueler, but redeemingly more “capable.”

With the striking exception of Stevenson, all the people whose lives Holmes has previously examined lived during the Romantic period. But then, Holmes maintains, “biography itself, with its central tenet of empathy, is essentially a Romantic form.” Coming from him, the remark scarcely surprises. Less predictable is the book in which it occurs: Dr. Johnson & Mr. Savage, the account of a personal relationship that existed briefly, for about two years, in the 1730s—considerably before the birth of Mary Wollstonecraft, Coleridge, Wordsworth, even Blake, let alone the younger generation of Romantics. In the last pages of Dr. Johnson & Mr. Savage, however, Holmes argues that when Savage presented himself as the persecuted and lonely man of genius in poems such as The Wanderer, or The Bastard, he in fact heralded Romanticism. Even more important, Savage’s mysterious and tragic story led the young Johnson not only to memorialize his recently deceased friend in the earliest (1744) of his lives of the English poets, but to crystallize the perils and possibilities of biography as a form.

Holmes has always been as much interested in the nature of his craft as in his subjects. It was perhaps inevitable that he should eventually confront Johnson, the man with whom biography as a genre in England really begins. Indeed, there is a sense in which Johnson seems to have been looking over Holmes’s shoulder from the start, not only by virtue of their joint attraction to literary lives, but because of the shared conviction—not that Johnson acted upon it any more than Holmes—that “there has rarely passed a life of which a judicious and faithful narrative would not be useful” (The Rambler, No. 60, for October 13, 1750).

More surprising is the appearance of Dr. Johnson & Mr. Savage just now, in place of the expected second volume of Holmes’s big life of Coleridge. It is not, of course, unusual for writers to interrupt a large and demanding work in order to carry a smaller, more manageable project through to completion. In this case, however, the maneuver looks almost like an exorcism: Holmes’s attempt to lay the ghost of an earlier and confessed failure—that huge, unpublished typescript in which, back in 1976, he found himself confronted by a biographical enigma he could not resolve: that of Gérard de Nerval.

As Holmes tells the story in the last section of Footsteps, the demented Nerval drove his would-be biographer almost to the brink of madness himself. Nerval seemed, first of all, to accuse Holmes from the grave of an inexcusable invasion of privacy—a charge to which he has always felt nervously open. Secondly, the evanescent and shifting identity of this spokesman for “the failing vision of Romanticism in France”—epitomized in the various pseudonyms behind which he sheltered—together with the impossibility of disentangling fantasy from fact, the “real” man from the fictional one created by Nerval himself or by his friends, brought Holmes sharply up against the limits of biography. “All the logical and traditional structures that I had learned so painstakingly—the chronology, the development of character, the structure of friendships, the sense of trust and the subject’s inner identity—began to twist and dissolve.” For Holmes, even the contemporary Paris in which he was carrying out his research became a kind of nightmare.

Richard Savage did not commit suicide, as Nerval did, nor was he ever diagnosed as clinically insane. Yet the problems he poses for the biographer are remarkably similar, and complicated by the still undetermined debate over whether Savage really was (as he insisted) the disinherited natural son of Richard Savage, the fourth Earl Rivers, and Lady Macclesfield. Or was he merely an impostor, an impoverished pretender to rank and fortune who gradually came to credit his own lie; or possibly his nurse’s craftily substituted changeling child? (Holmes’s own investigation of the evidence leads him to conclude, as Clarence Tracy did in 1953, in The Artificial Bastard, that the truth is irrecoverable, but that the Savage known by Johnson was genuinely convinced of his claim.) An earlier but equally opaque and riddling version of Nerval, Savage remains a man whose very origins cannot be deciphered or pinned down. The crucial difference is that in this instance Samuel Johnson, not Théophile Gautier, mediates between Holmes and his subject as contemporary commentator and friend. Johnson, indeed, dominates what is really, as Holmes admits, “the biography of a biography.”

This, however, despite Holmes’s title, is not yet Dr. Johnson, the formidable and respected sage of Boswell’s Life, but a man Boswell (and most other members of the Johnson circle) never knew, and later tried to obscure: the gauche, physically grotesque, failed schoolmaster who came up to London from Lichfield in 1737, at the age of twenty-seven, encumbered with a much older wife who was already an embarrassment, in the hope of succeeding with his tragedy Irene while, for the moment, squeezing a meager subsistence out of Grub Street. It may have been in the latter context (although Holmes prefers the river bank at Greenwich, scene of the farewell to Thales in Johnson’s “London”) that he first met Savage, a man more than ten years his senior, whose situation at the time was even more desperate than his own.

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