James Boswell is for some the ideal scribe, for others a sycophantic toady. Edmund Wilson memorably labeled him "a vain and pushing diarist." Boswell can even be seen as someone unconsciously intent on undermining his idol in sonorous, balanced sentences. Early on in his massive Life
, he puts all manner of ideas into our heads with his boobish attempts to clear the youthful Johnson of potential impropriety: "His juvenile attachments to the fair sex were, however, very transient; and it is certain that he formed no criminal connection whatsoever." And while it's often tempting to ignore Boswell's more personal intrusions and delight solely in the melancholic master's words and deeds, there are delightful admissions as, "I was at this time so occupied, shall I call it? or so dissipated, by the amusements of London that our next meeting was not till Saturday, June 25..."
Samuel Johnson was born in 1709 and died in 1784--a long life, though one marred by depression and fear of death. On April 20, 1764, for example, he declared, "I would consent to have a limb amputated to recover my spirits." Many of the quotes Boswell includes are a sort of greatest hits: Johnson's definitions of oats and lexicographer, his love for his cat Hodge, as well as thousands of bon, and mal, mots. ("Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel"; "Sir, a woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hinder legs. It is not done well; but you are surprized to find it done at all.") But there are also many unfamiliar pleasures--Boswell's accounts of Johnson's literary industry, including the Dictionary, The Rambler and Lives of the Poets; Johnson's singular loathing for Scotland and France; and the surprising hints of revelry. Awakened at 3 AM by friends, he greets them with, "What, is it you, you dogs! I'll have a frisk with you." This at age 42. Johnson's final years were marked by pain and loneliness but certainly no loss of wit.