“We cannot tell the precise moment when friendship is formed. As in filling a vessel drop by drop, there is at last a drop which makes it run over; so in a series of kindnesses there is at last one which makes the heart run over.”—James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.
Boswell’s “Life of Johnson” was published in 1791, a little more than six years after Johnson’s death. It is not a biography as readers may think of a biography: the recounting of incidents from a life of action. The poet W.H. Auden said that writers are “makers, not doers” and thus he, Auden, was not going to write his memoirs. We need biographies of the doers in order to learn what was happening behind the scenes, how close the men of action came to disaster and saved their (and sometimes, our) day, he suggested. Johnson’s life was the life of a man of letters, a life spent writing plays, compiling the first major English dictionary, compiling an edition of Shakespeare’s plays, writing weekly columns on every topic his extraordinary mind could entertain. He was a maker.
Boswell described an evening of Johnson’s conversation in the pubs in this way: “His mind resembled the vast ampitheater, the Colisæum at Rome. In the center stood his judgement, which like a mighty gladiator, combated those apprehensions that, like the wild beasts of the Arena, were all around in cells, ready to be let out upon him. After a conflict, he drives them back into their dens; but not killing them, they were still assailing him.”
The biography was an instant bestseller and remains one of the most acclaimed biographies yet written in English. Boswell spent two decades in Johnson’s company; they traveled together, dined together, hung out. Boswell was not an un-busy man himself: he was a lawyer, a man about town, an alcoholic and romance addict (two children out of wedlock; five children with his wife). And he was constantly writing. Every evening, no matter how much he ate and drank that day, no matter how little he slept the night before, he wrote. Twelve volumes of his diaries have been published on top of his biography of Samuel Johnson and his accounts of travels he took, with and without Johnson.
The biography captured Johnson in detail and presented him so well that readers felt that they could hear his voice and see his face. If this had been the biography of a man of action, it would have failed. Even though dates are supplied, they only cover those dates that Boswell spent in Johnson’s company; thus we have day-to-day humdrumities from the last two decades of Johnson’s life, a man who lived to be 75. For the first 50 years of the doctor’s life, he relies on any anecdotes that Dr. Johnson might have shared in their conversations.
It is that quote at the top that informs Boswell’ project and is the key to its status as a beloved volume in English literature. One word: friendship. Boswell was Johnson’s friend. The biography was published after Johnson’s death; perhaps Samuel Johnson would not have cared to see himself so well described, warts and all, but he most likely would have loved the writing. Boswell notices and describes the things that a friend notices about a friend, those things that one does not even notice one is noticing and memorizing.
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There is a difference, I have written, “between living a life story about which people say, ‘That ought to be a book or a movie,’ and possessing a life story about which those same people will pay real money to buy the book or view that movie.” One of the first things people early in recovery hear from others early in recovery is a reaction to some of the more death-defying feats of non-sobriety: “You oughta write a book.” Or about the positive example we each are for one another: “You should try to sell that.”
Twice, I have been “hired” (no money exchanged hands, just promises) to be a friend’s “Boswell.” Both subjects have lived portions of their lives that oughta be a book. Both times it did not work out because the subjects did not want to sit still long enough for the portrait to be made, and because I could not yet sit still long enough to do the gazing.
The greatest story never told? The story of one Mark S. Aldrich, person, to me is the greatest story in my life, but it is not one that anyone will notice on a bookshelf, pause, and reach for. It remains my collection of anecdotes here in this website, and the fact that people read The Gad About Town at all is profoundly moving to me.
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