Today in History: May 16

James Boswell described an evening of Dr. Samuel Johnson’s nightly 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.”

Boswell met Dr. Johnson for the first time on this date in 1763. 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 a romance addict (two children out of wedlock; five children with his wife). And he wrote all the time. 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 two were boon companions for the last two decades of Johnson’s life. Boswell’s biography (published in 1791, a little more than six years after Johnson’s death) captured Johnson in great detail and presented him so well that readers felt that they could hear Johnson’s voice and see his face.

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. And he did. Auden said that 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.

If Boswell’s work 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.

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. The biography was an instant bestseller and remains one of the most acclaimed biographies yet written in English.

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The U.S. Senate acquitted President Andrew Johnson of impeachment on this date in 1868. Three votes were held and all three came up 35 guilty (pro-impeach) and 19 not guilty. A two-thirds majority is required to impeach a president; 36 votes were needed to impeach Johnson. Seven Republicans broke with their party and voted to not guilty.

* * * *
Django Reinhardt died on this date in 1953. James Agee died on this date in 1955. Margaret Hamilton died on this date in 1985.Jim Henson died on this date in 1990. Sammy Davis Jr. died on this date in 1990.

 
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Henry Fonda was born 111 years ago today. Studs Terkel was born on this date in 1912. Woody Herman was born in 1913 on this date. Liberace was born on this date in 1919. Frank Mankiewicz was born on this date in 1924. Billy Martin was born in 1928 on this date. Adrienne Rich was born on this date in 1929. The late Yvonne Craig was born on this date in 1937.

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Congressman John Conyers is 87. Governor Lowell Weicker is 85. Danny Trejo is 72. Robert Fripp is 70 today. Jonathan Richman is 65. Pierce Brosnan is 63. Jack Morris is 61. Olga Korbut is 61. Mare Winningham is 57. Kevin McDonald (The Kids in the Hall) is 55 today. Krist Novoselic is 51. Janet Jackson is 50.

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