Monday, May 16, 2011

Life of Johnson

May 16th was a significant date for James Boswell and Samuel Johnson.  On May 16, 1763, the two met in Tom Davies' bookshop.  Twenty-eight years later, on May 16, 1791, Boswell's "Life of Johnson" was finally published.  The work would probably never have come to fruition except for the help of Edmond Malone, who shepherded Boswell through the process. Boswell died four years after his great work was published, just three days past the May 16th anniversary; on May 19, 1795. 

Both Johnson and Sir Walter Scott have been the subject of many biographies.  In most circles, Boswell's "Life of Johnson" is regarded as the world's best.  In many circles, John Gibson Lockhart's "Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott" comes in second.  As shown in this passage in Lockhart’s work, by the time Scott and his friends were successful in their fields, Boswell had set the standard by which other biographies would be compared:

'After returning home, Ballantyne made another journey to Glasgow for the purchase of types; and on entering the Kelso coach for this purpose, "It would not be easy," says he, "to express my joy on finding that Mr. Scott was to be one of my partners in the carriage, the only other passenger being a fine, stout, muscular, old Quaker. A very few miles reestablished us on our ancient footing. Travelling not being half so speedy then as it is now, there was plenty of leisure for talk, and Mr. Scott was exactly what is called the old man. He abounded, as in the days of boyhood, in legendary lore, and had now added to the stock, as his recitations showed, many of those fine ballads which afterwards composed the Minstrelsy. Indeed, I was more delighted with him than ever; and, by way of reprisal, I opened on him my London budget, collected from Holcroft and Godwin. I doubt if Boswell ever showed himself a more skilful Reporter than I did on this occasion...'

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