Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Johnson and Boswell

Winter finds me re-reading Boswell on Johnson. Which means admiring Boswell, and appreciating Boswell, and laughing at Boswell, and, necessarily and fundamentally, being grateful for Boswell. Good gods, how lucky we are to have had--exactly, perfectly, suitably--Boswell. In a certain sense, no stance but gratitude is appropriate; at the same time, being human, we can't help but, sentence by sentence, wrangle with him.

For example, when he makes fun of Dr. Johnson's friend and great comfort Mrs. Thrale. Boswell--whom we can never wholly free from self-interest, writes,
Mrs. Thrale, who frequently practised a coarse mode of flattery, by repeating his bon-mots in his hearing . . . 
etc., etc. No one, of course, collected or retailed Johnson's bon mots with anything near the assiduity of Boswell. He admits almost as much, or, at least, admits that he is a sponge for Johnson's wit. Mere pages later as he recounts what seems to have been a remarkably pleasant evening--the sort to perpetually tempt a time traveler--with Johnson at his home:
After the evening service, he said, "Come, you shall go home with me, and sit just an hour." But he was better than his word, for after we had drunk tea with Mrs. Williams, he asked me to go up to his study with him, where we sat a long time while together in a serene undisturbed frame of mind, sometimes in silence, and sometimes conversing, as we felt ourselves inclined, or more properly speaking, as he was inclined; for during all the course of my long intimacy with him, my respectful attention never abated, and my wish to hear him was such, that I constantly watched every dawning of communication from that great and illuminated mind.
Yet there is no question but what Johnson loved Boswell, occasional simpering and all, as a letter from August of 1775 reminds us:
Never, my dear Sir, do you take it into your head to think that I do not love you; you may settle yourself in full confidence both of my love and my esteem; I love you as a kind man, I value you as a worthy man, and hope in time to reverence you as a man of exemplary piety. I hold you, as Hamlet has it, "in my heart of hearts," and, therefore, it is little to say, that I am, Sir, your affectionate humble servant.
What more could an English-speaking, Western-raised reader want? The approbation, Sir, of Dr. Johnson, is sufficient--and beyond--unto the day. And if I may: All, all, all hail Boswell, today and every day when we find ourselves with a drink in our hands and an anecdote on our lips. We could do far worse than to choose him as our watchword and our guide.

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