James Boswell (1740-1795), author of The Life of Samuel Johnson
, remains one of the more celebrated biographers in modern literary history. In his monumental A Life of James Boswell
, Peter Martin takes on the formidable task of writing the biographer's biography--of telling the story of a man whose numerous journals are renowned for their vivid evocation of his life and times. Martin's account is meticulous, dividing Boswell's Life into four discrete periods: "Journey to the Promised Land 1740-1763," "Travel and Marriage 1763-1769," "Stagnation: the Middle Years 1769-1782," and "Biographer and Laird of Auchinleck: Triumph and Despair 1782-1795." This broad-brush approach has the advantage of bringing some coherence to Boswell's complicated, often frenetic life: the dismal relationship with his family, and his early resistance to a career in law; the studies in London and Utrecht; the meetings with Rousseau and Voltaire, and his powerful friendship with Johnson; his salacious sexuality and fits of morbid depression; his passion for literary London. But, somehow, the vibrancy and intellectual fervor of Boswell's career fails to come through. The scope of this biography is remarkable, but its sheer wealth of detail--sometimes disconnected, and often recounted without comment or analysis--works to obscure the psychological, cultural, and political impact of Boswell's life and works. --Vicky Lebeau
From Publishers Weekly
Martin quotes his multi-flawed (but here, warmly limned) hero as confessing, smugly, at 23, "I am one of the most engaging men that ever lived." Despite such confidence, Boswell (1740-1798), author of the first modern biography, A Life of Dr. Samuel Johnson LL.D., was also tormented by bouts of black despair about his private and professional failings. He was never able to earn the respect of his rigid father, a Scot lawyer and laird, and never (despite marrying a paragon of a woman) able to satisfy his alcoholic or his sexual appetites, which left him almost always suffering from, or recovering from, drunkenness or gonorrhea. His two published journals on Corsica and the Hebrides, and his life of Johnson, have since been supplemented by 14 volumes of long-hidden journals and seven volumes of letters, and Martin, a professor of English at Principia College in Illinois, has had the good fortune of access to Yale's as-yet unpublished resources. The result (which Martin first published in England last year) is also the reader's good fortuneDa racy, readable and authoritative biography that sympathetically but unapologetically dramatizes what drove Boswell, almost in spite of himself, to produce some of the best writing in English. Writing his Life of Johnson, Boswell told himself, "I draw him in the style of a Flemish painter. I am not satisfied with hitting the large features. I must be exact as to every hair...." In Martin's pages, the reader lives at Boswell's elbowDimpatient at his failures, delighting in his successes ("I just sat and hugged myself in my own mind," Boswell once wrote). 12 pages b&w illus. (Nov. 15)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.