In Johnson’s Bear Hug

Boswell in Extremes, 1776-1778 Editions, McGraw-Hill

edited by Charles McC. Weis, edited by Frederick A. Pottle
Yale Editions of the Private Papers of James Boswell Series: Trade, 440 pp., $15.00

The Correspondence and Other Papers of James Boswell Relating to the Making of the Life of Johnson, Vol. 2 Editions, McGraw-Hill

edited by Marshall Waingrow
Yale Editions of the Private Papers of James Boswell Series: Research, 659 pp., $20.00

Samuel Johnson and the Life of Writing

by Paul Fussell
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 300 pp., $9.50

The Conversations of Dr. Johnson

edited by Raymond Postgate
Taplinger, 326 pp., $6.95

A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (Collected Works, Vol. IX)

by Samuel Johnson, edited by Mary Lascelles
Yale, 185 pp., $8.75

Life of Savage

by Samuel Johnson, edited by Clarence Tracy
Oxford, 191 pp., $6.75

The History of Rasselas

by Samuel Johnson, edited by Geoffrey Tillotson, edited by Brian Jenkins
Oxford, 176 pp., $5.00

The Rambler (Collected Works, Vols. III, IV, V)

by Samuel Johnson, edited by W.J. Bate, edited by Albrecht B. Strauss
Yale, 1,177 pp., $35.00

Samuel Johnson
Samuel Johnson; drawing by David Levine

Need we envy Boswell and Mrs. Thrale? Was there in Dr. Johnson’s conversation, his physical presence, even his oddities, some precious essence that is not in the writings he has left behind? Or should we, remembering Boswell’s warning that Johnson often talked for victory and said things he would not have committed to cold print, be glad that in his wide-ranging Works we have the fruit of his meditation and deep wisdom about life?

The question is always coming up; the publication at Yale of the first complete edition of Johnson’s writings since the much more amateurish Oxford collection of 1825 is bound to raise the question of the self-sufficiency of Johnson the author. On the other hand, the ceaseless, unquenchable biographical interest in Johnson and all the members of his circle serves to show that for many readers, perhaps for all readers in certain moods, they are interesting today primarily as people. The noble Yale edition of the Works is matched in thoroughness by the same university’s project of publishing, in their entirety, the terrifyingly copious “private papers” of Boswell. Two separate editions are in progress, one selected and packaged for the general reader, the other primarily intended as source material for scholars. A volume of each series has recently appeared; for the non-specialist, another chunk of Boswell’s journal, covering two years of (even for him) unusual turmoil; for the scholar, a mass of material relating to the Life of Johnson.

Though not a scholar, I found the latter more interesting, partly because after eight volumes of self-revelation I am beginning to tire of Boswell’s interior landscape, and partly because the writing of the Life was much the most important thing Boswell ever did. As a psychological and intellectual case, he is interesting enough; but his claim on our gratitude is that he, more than anyone else, manages to bring us close to Johnson.

In a sense, the dilemma about Johnson—whether to take him as man or writer—begins with Boswell, who was absolutely certain that Johnson was a great writer but at the same time absolutely dependent on personal contact with him. Of course it was Boswell’s nature to expand in the shelter of a stronger character. He was far too acute not to recognize his need for a “host,” and in the present installment of his journal (Boswell in Extremes, 1776-1778) we find him writing (p. 168), “To be with those of whom I stand in awe composes the uneasy tumult of my spirits.” His hero worship arose from a prior need: but why Johnson? Why not one of the great of his own nation, or a romantic man of action like General Paoli?

It is surprising, when one looks into it, how many people have been prepared to go out on one limb or another: Johnson the man or Johnson the writer. George Horne, Bishop of Norwich,…

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