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Johnson and Boswell

Johnson and Boswell: A Biography of Friendship

Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 416
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  • Book Info
    Johnson and Boswell
    Book Description:

    In this book John Radner examines the fluctuating, close, and complex friendship enjoyed by Samuel Johnson and James Boswell, from the day they met in 1763 to the day when Boswell published his monumentalLife of Johnson.

    Drawing on everything Johnson and Boswell wrote to and about the other, this book charts the psychological currents that flowed between them as they scripted and directed their time together, questioned and advised, confided and held back. It explores the key longings and shifting tensions that distinguished this from each man's other long-term friendships, while it tracks in detail how Johnson and Boswell brought each other to life, challenged and confirmed each other, and used their deepening friendship to define and assess themselves. It tells a story that reaches through its specificity into the dynamics of most sustained friendships, with their breaks and reconnections, their silences and fresh intimacies, their continuities and transformations.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-18908-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-10)

    Their first meeting was fortuitous. Having read with admiration some of Samuel Johnson’s many publications, and having heard accounts of his brilliant conversation, James Boswell in 1762 accepted an invitation from the actor and bookseller Tom Davies to Christmas dinner, where Johnson was expected. But Johnson had gone to Oxford, having just learned that his dear friend Richard Bathurst had died in the siege of Havana. Then, five months later, while Boswell was having tea in Davies’s back room on Russell Street, Johnson unexpectedly stopped by, “a Man of a most dreadful appearance,” as Boswell noted in his journal, though...

  5. 1 Taking Charge of Boswell (1763)
    (pp. 11-35)

    What did Johnson and Boswell each make of the other when they met on 16 May 1763, and what did each get from their time together during the next twelve weeks? What did their new friendship mean to each when they parted on 6 August? How did this change in the four months before Johnson finally replied to Boswell’s August and October letters?

    Keeping in mind that much is elusive about why people become friends, I want to begin answering these questions by charting the twenty-two days in 1763 when Johnson and Boswell were with each other, in each case...

  6. 2 “Perpetual Friendship”? (1764–1767)
    (pp. 36-57)

    Between Boswell’s sailing to Holland in 1763 and his traveling to see Johnson at Oxford in March 1768, the two friends saw each other on only a few days in February 1766. In the following four years (through March 1772), they were in the same place only twice: for about six weeks in the spring of 1768 and almost five in the fall of 1769. There were intimate moments each time they reconnected. But Boswell’s accounts indicate that their time together was generally more tense and contentious than in 1763: Boswell grew increasingly feisty and defiant, challenging Johnson’s assertions and...

  7. 3 Jostling for Control (1768–1771)
    (pp. 58-81)

    In March 1768, Boswell arrived in London to relish his celebrity as the author ofCorsica. Four years later, he arrived to defend in an appellate case before the House of Lords and also to get Johnson to begin formally preparing him to write theLife. For most of the time in between, the key drama in the life of each friend did not involve the other. But they spent time together in the spring of 1768 and the fall of 1769, experiencing more fully than before how commitments to others challenged their friendship. The surviving records suggest that neither...

  8. 4 New Collaborations (1772)
    (pp. 82-98)

    In the spring of 1772, both friends were in better shape than when last together. Having not published anything for years after finally completing the Shakespeare edition, Johnson had recently written two widely debated pamphlets, texts he discussed when first with Boswell; and he was busy with what he half-mockingly called the “very great work” of revising theDictionary. Also, four weeks after he first reconnected with Boswell on 20 March, Johnson fulfilled the resolution he had made the previous Easter, but then had forgotten until the beginning of Lent, to read the whole Bible by Easter.

    Meanwhile Boswell, having...

  9. 5 Embracing the Biographer (1772–1773)
    (pp. 99-112)

    Back in Scotland after the heady, self-affirming London visit, his first in more than two years, Boswell became dejected. After the ebullience of dining at Oglethorpe’s with Johnson and Goldsmith, or at Reynolds’s with Goldsmith, Beauclerk, and Burke, he found Edinburgh dull. He kept only sketchy journal notes from 16 May through 17 June, then none for almost seven weeks. Having written Temple five letters between 24 March and 2 May, he next wrote on 4 August.

    Boswell assumed Johnson would come north for the long-anticipated Hebrides trip. Early in the London visit—probably before Johnson met the beautiful Lady...

  10. 6 Cooperation and Rivalry in Scotland (14 August to 22 November 1773)
    (pp. 113-131)

    Whatever the two friends expected as they together entered Boswell’s house on 14 August 1773, with the “very handsome and spacious rooms” Johnson described to Hester Thrale a few days later, both would be surprised by much that occurred during the ensuing three months of constant contact. Traveling together for twelve weeks, and sharing their journals describing the trip, both deepened and transformed their friendship.¹

    Until August 1773, their shared travel had consisted of a day trip to Greenwich soon after Johnson first proposed the Hebrides adventure, and an overnight trip to Harwich. On a number of days, they had...

  11. 7 Negotiating and Competing for Narrative Control (14 August to 22 November 1773)
    (pp. 132-148)

    It seems likely that simply traveling together for eighty-four days would have modified the Johnson-Boswell friendship in many of the ways described in the last chapter. But these changes were augmented by their collaborating and competing to narrate their adventure and especially by their sharing some—but not all—of their travel narratives. Having used Boswell’s journal and Johnson’s letters, and occasionally theJourneyand theTour, to describe key interactions during their long trip, I will now focus directly on what they wrote while traveling: especially on Boswell’s writing his journal for Johnson to read, on Johnson’s response to...

  12. 8 Collaboration Manqué (November 1773 to May 1775)
    (pp. 149-168)

    As Johnson and Boswell parted in November 1773, they expected to reconnect in March, when they would once again share Holy Week, attend meetings of the Club, and work together on Johnson’s book about their trip. Boswell would also bring his journal, which he hoped would be the basis for his own book.

    Boswell, however, did not come to London until March 1775, two months after Johnson’sJourney to the Western Islands of Scotlandhad been published. There is no evidence that he directly expressed a wish to review what Johnson was writing, and Johnson made no effort to send...

  13. 9 Renegotiating the Friendship, Part 1 (1775–1777): Depression, Defiance, and Dependency
    (pp. 169-191)

    When the two friends parted in the early hours of 22 May 1775, they had no idea that Boswell would soon experience the most intense and sustained depression since his marriage, or that in October he would become angrily (but secretly) defiant after learning Johnson had failed to report his trip to France. Nor did they anticipate that in April 1776, after Johnson had spent eleven days with his biographer narrating himself through the landscape of his youth, Boswell would edge toward open confrontation. Nor that in the summer Johnson would refuse to explain how David Hume could die peacefully,...

  14. 10 Renegotiating the Friendship, Part 2 (1777–1778): Confrontation, Collaboration, and Celebration
    (pp. 192-213)

    On 4 April 1777, a few days after his son David’s funeral, Boswell wrote Johnson, explaining why he would not be coming to London and suggesting that they meet in the fall, perhaps in Carlisle, the only English cathedral town Johnson had not visited: “If you are to be with Dr. Taylor, at Ashbourne, it would not be a great journey to come thither. We may pass a few most agreeable days there by ourselves, and I will accompany you a good part of the way to the southward again.” When Johnson on 3 May replied to this and another...

  15. 11 “Strangers to Each Other” (May 1778 to March 1781)
    (pp. 214-231)

    In the thirty-four months from 20 May 1778 through 19 March 1781, Boswell and Johnson were much less significantly in touch than in the previous six years. Aside from the seven weeks in the spring of 1779 when Boswell was in London, and three months that fall, when they exchanged letters both before and after a brief October visit, they were less connected than during the years since March 1772. Boswell skimpily documented these two visits, especially the first, suggesting they hardly mattered. Also, except in the fall of 1779, Johnson seldom wrote. Having sent on average a letter a...

  16. 12 The Lives of the Poets and Johnson’s (Auto)biography (1777–1781)
    (pp. 232-245)

    While Boswell in December 1780 was finding a new way to write himself out of melancholy, and then weathering a bout of depression triggered by arguments against free will, Johnson was writing theLife of Pope, completing the assignment he had accepted four years earlier and greatly expanded. He had produced critical biographies of fifty-two writers, starting with those who had died before or shortly after he was born, but soon reaching those whose lives overlapped significantly with his own, some of whom he knew well. The first set of twenty-two, includingMiltonandDryden, had been published early in...

  17. 13 Reconnecting (1781–1783)
    (pp. 246-264)

    When Boswell and Johnson “unexpectedly” met in Fleet Street a day after Boswell reached London, neither knew that the still remarkably healthy Johnson would die within four years. But by the end of the visit, Johnson’s health was beginning to totter; and when they next met, in March 1783, Boswell was shocked by how close to death his friend seemed. By then, their friendship had also been challenged by the deaths of others. The death of Henry Thrale in April 1781 left Johnson uncertain about his connection with the family that for years had provided a second home, and alarmed...

  18. 14 “Some Time Together before We Are Parted” (March 1783 to May 1784)
    (pp. 265-283)

    “I am glad you are come,” Johnson said once Boswell had located him at Hester Thrale’s house; “I am very ill.” Always eager for diversion, Johnson now was radically needy. Boswell as usual engaged Johnson by introducing topics and posing problems. Later, after Mrs. Thrale joined them, Johnson told Boswell, “You must be as much with me as you can. You have done me good. You cannot think how much better I am since you came in.”

    At Boswell’s prompting, Johnson explained why “it is better to have five per cent out of land than out of money,” and why...

  19. 15 “Love Me as Well as You Can” (1784)
    (pp. 284-300)

    Having failed in his bid for Parliament, Boswell wrote Johnson from Lichfield on 30 April 1784, and arrived in London five days later. In anticipating the visit, he had written Reynolds, Dempster, and Barnard—and also the overseer James Bruce, who expected him at Auchinleck—that his goal was “chiefly to attend upon Dr. Johnson”; and he was with Johnson on most of the days when both were in London (or Oxford) between 5 May and 2 July.¹

    On 21 April, when it was finally warm enough to venture outside, Johnson reported walking “with a more easy respiration” than he...

  20. 16 Rewriting the Hebrides Trip (1785)
    (pp. 301-314)

    Johnson’s death authorized Boswell to write theLife. Five days before he read the will that failed to mention him, Boswell described to Reynolds the “peculiar treasure which [his] assiduity has secured”: “A great number of his Conversations taken down exactly—scenes Which were highly delightfull at the time and will forever afford instruction and entertainment.” He soon saw in theLondon Chroniclea notice that John Hawkins planned both to edit Johnson’s works and to write a “Life of the Author, collected from a Diary kept by himself and other documents.” But he also head from Charles Dilly that...

  21. 17 Boswell Claiming His Inheritance (1786–1791)
    (pp. 315-338)

    LikeCorsicaseventeen years earlier, theTourquickly captured readers’ aattention. All 1,500 copies were sold within two weeks. A second edition was published on 22 December, and a third ten months later. When Boswell read Hester Thrale Piozzi’s popularAnecdotes of Dr. Johnsonin March 1786, a month after being called to the English bar, and when he conferred with Sir John Hawkins four months later concerning Johnson’s sexual conduct, knowing Hawkins would soon publish hisLife of Samuel Johnson, LL.D., Boswell knew theTourhad established his credentials to write the definitive biography. But he was slow to...

  22. 18 Winning Johnson’s Blessing
    (pp. 339-354)

    By masking his past and current neediness, and showing how well he could function in a world without Johnson, Boswell might have imagined earning Johnson’s respect. But because he had not written during fifteen of Johnson’s final nineteen weeks, he also needed his friend’s understanding and forgiveness. So Boswell emphasized Johnson’s “constitutional melancholy,” which he had noted but used only once in theTour. (The phrase was not in the journal Boswell showed Johnson.) By sympathetically explaining how this caused Johnson’s notorious harshness and anger, by working to forgive the behavior that had most troubled him, and especially by applauding...

  23. Appendix: Key Events in Lives of Samuel Johnson (SJ) and James Boswell (JB), Days They Were Together, and Letters They Exchanged
    (pp. 355-358)
  24. Cue Titles and Abbreviations
    (pp. 359-362)
  25. Notes
    (pp. 363-402)
  26. Index
    (pp. 403-415)