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The Rake's Secret Progress
Peter Martin's
A Life of James Boswell

by Charlie Onion

James Boswell, the famous Samuel Johnson biographer, was vilified in the nineteenth century as "a great fool" (among other things). In his A Life of James Boswell, Peter Martin offers a new, gratifyingly complicated portrait that sets the record straight.

The story of how the letters and journals of James Boswell finally saw scholarly light in the 1920s and 1930s, some one hundred and thirty years after Boswell's death, is the stuff literary thrillers are made of. Their contents deemed too salacious for public consumption, they were quietly passed down through the generations until an American book collector persuaded the collection's owners to sell him the manuscripts and grant him publishing rights (their attempts to conceal the embarrassing parts failed). Then, remarkably, another large stash of Boswell papers was discovered in 1930 (it wouldn't be the last), and the book collector's efforts to gain control of the growing Boswell collection and publish it in a definitive edition (that would recoup at least some of his expenses) became maddening. Legal issues crept along until World War II started, and only after the war had ended did the collector complete his collection, which he sold to Yale University in 1949 for $450,000. The journals began appearing in print in 1950, and the final volume was published in 1989.

A Life of
James Boswell

Peter Martin
Yale University Press
613 pp.
$35 order now logo

The Boswell papers' significance is inestimable, as Peter Martin writes in his new, definitive biography, A Life of James Boswell: finally, the aspersions that had been cast against Boswell since Thomas Babington Macaulay wrote that Boswell was "utterly wanting" in "logic, eloquence, wit, taste, all those qualities which are generally considered as making a book valuable." (He even claimed it was immoral that such a great biography as Boswell's Life of Johnson should have come from such "a great fool.") Martin's purpose, of course, is to get the record straight on poor Boswell, with the aid of the collected journals in particular. "At first," he writes,


the journals appeared to confirm the nineteenth-century perception of Boswell as a compulsive womanizer, drinker and gambler, a habitual gallant who only seemed happy when acting the fool. But readers soon began to see him as a highly complex figure, someone they thought they understood and with whom they were prepared to travel the extra mile. His honesty, sincerity, geniality, sensitivity, and desire to become a better human being are partly responsible for this change of perception. His journals also show him to be a conscientious and talented writer. Perhaps most importantly, they reveal the degree of mental suffering he endured for most of his lifetime.


One of Martin's central purposes, he says, is to trace the link between Boswell's "contradictory and confused self and his hypochondria or melancholia which, from adolescence onwards, set in motion causes and effects that often wrecked his behavior."

Now, let's face it: moving from a damning portrait of debauchery to a sad portrait of sexual addiction and morbidity is really a matter of shading and interpretative insights. By my count, Martin lists seventeen separate gonorrheal infections for Boswell, and a man who expends himself on a prostitute four times in a single night certainly couldn't be termed chaste. Given his era's declared emphasis on reason and the intellect, you can see how a bad reputation could get started. (Having two illegitimate children by two different women--along with a group of apparently less fertile mistresses--didn't help.) On the other hand, Martin certainly seems right to favor the 'complicated' interpretation of Boswell's carnal excesses: they (along with the journals' accounts of his alcoholism and depression) suggest more a man in psychological turmoil than they do a simple, carefree hedonist.

Today, Boswell might simply have written a devastatingly candid memoir and taken his chances with Oprah. As it stood, though, he confined his confessions to the journals and to occasional boasts and laments to his friends and (long-suffering) wife. (A newspaper column Boswell wrote, "The Hypochondriack," was too layered in tone to be truly confessional; as Martin writes, it was Boswell's private journal that "epitomized a constant struggle both to recover and be free from his self.")

An argument might be made, of course, that Boswell's Life of Johnson was itself a veiled Boswell memoir of sorts, and Martin suggests as much:


The great link between Johnson and Boswell in the Life was provided by Johnson's 'diseased imagination', his morbid melancholy. Ever since his teenage years, when as a university student in Edinburgh he discovered the Rambler, Boswell had been fascinated and helped by Johnson's efforts to 'manage' his mind in order to survive. It was clear to him as a boy, and was to become increasingly so over the next twenty-five years, that Johnson was engaged in a heroic struggle to conquer or at least control his melancholy and tendencies to madness. For Boswell, who himself struggled incessantly with hypochondria, this was what made Johnson a sage. The Life is a history of 'the progress of his mind', but it is also a record of Boswell's own efforts to be healed by Johnson, to attach and subject himself to his philosophy and personal magnetism in order to manage his own mind. While Johnson quietly tried to suppress and extinguish the foul fiend by cultivating sanity, Boswell talked and wrote about it. Writing the biography was the climax of his painful journey through the metaphoric hell of hypochondria. The Life is restlessly full of himself partly because he is using it to define his indefinable self, in the archetypal pattern of a Romantic egotist.


Martin's A Life of James Boswell is more than a psychological biography--it is, in fact, arguably the best, most complete biography we have of Boswell. But the work Martin does to correct the one-hundred-and-fifty-year-old misconceptions about Boswell's state of mind stands out as the greatest accomplishment in this resoundingly successful, strongly engaging study. Click here to find any book!


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