Boswell's Presumptuous Task: The Making of the Life of Dr. Johnson

By Adam Sisman. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000. xxii, 351 pp. Ill. $25.00. ISBN 0-374-11561-3.


Review essay published in American Archivist (Vol. 65, No.1, Spring/Summer 2002)


In 1763 James Boswell, a young Scot of twenty-two, met Samuel Johnson, then fifty-three and the most famous literary figure in London. From then until Johnson's death in 1784, Boswell was a frequent companion of the great man and, as he proved in his biography published in 1791, Johnson's documenter as well. After reading a couple of sentences of such description of this relationship, one could easily dismiss this as a minor literary event. Yet, Boswell's Life of Johnson was a pioneering biography, and, astonishingly, the book has stayed in print and been read by generations over the past two centuries. James Boswell's scholarship, methodology, and his own papers constitute an interesting story for archivists and other records professionals. Adam Sisman's study provides insights into how journals were conceived and created, glimpses into earlier perceptions of archives, the connection of archives to individual reputation, and a miscellany of other aspects of the formation of documents that demonstrate why archivists need to read outside their own professional literature.

We already possess good biographies of James Boswell, such as Peter Martin's A Life of James Boswell. But Boswell's Presumptuous Task, by Adam Sisman, is a study of Boswell's writing of the biography, albeit one that builds around Boswell's tempestuous and tortured efforts to make a success of himself. As the title suggests, Boswell was an unlikely candidate for writing such a major literary milestone, and Boswell's Presumptuous Task is a moving, well-written account of an individual struggling to find himself and fame in the eighteenth century. The focus on the writing of the biography provides some interesting insights into the nature of archives, documents, and the use of evidence in an era characterized by the establishment, in Europe and the United States, of specialized institutions to collect and care for historical materials of all kinds.

For a very long time there was confusion about how someone like James Boswell, seemingly unsuccessful or undistinguished in nearly every aspect of his life, could write a biography of such excellence—indeed, could invent the art of modern biography. Most scholars writing about Boswell have shown how his reputation has improved as his personal papers became more available to researchers and a curious public, a century after his death. The nature of Boswell's personal archives, indeed his self-conscious approach to forming his archives, seemed designed to seal, ultimately, his reputation. While Boswell may never have achieved the respect, public acclaim, fame, and fortune he desired during his lifetime, the documentary residue in the form of his journals, correspondence, and collection of Johnson materials worked to correct these omissions. Boswell's grating personality, his licentiousness, and his character flaws are memorialized in these archives as well, but now these traits pale besides the achievements of his biography and the construction of his journals.

Boswell's biography of Johnson has had enduring value for us. Charles McGrath provides this insight into his significance: "Not only did Boswell invent the biography as we know it, he was also, in effect, the father of feature journalism, and for good and ill he created many of the conventions we still observe. The celebrity profile . . . oral history, documentary reporting, novelistic scene-setting a la the New Journalism . . . the buddy story, the travel yarn, the high-powered-dinner-party piece—the list of forms that he mastered or invented goes on and on." Boswell did an unheard of thing; he placed himself into the biography and wrote from his own perspective, enlivened by the direct conversations of Johnson and his companions. This combination of documents and conversation to give form to a life was different, and it has made the biography continually accessible to later readers.

Boswell's approach to biography is of interest to us today. Johnson himself was a biographer, but the point of his work was to use the subject to be an example, make a point, or serve as a moral example. In his biographical technique, Boswell wished to allow the subject to speak for himself, and this was the reason the reason why he was so assiduous in taking notes, checking facts, and replicating dialogue. Sisman demonstrates effectively in his study that we might never have such a biography again, given the close relationship between Boswell and Johnson for two decades, and Boswell's prodigious memory and dedication to copious note taking. Building the biography around scenes in Johnson's life required an accurate and detailed accounting of Johnson's words and conversations (otherwise it would be an exercise in fiction), and that is precisely what Boswell had available to him.

The records professional will learn much about the nature of journal writing as conceived in the eighteenth century and the subsequent use of these journals for biography writing. Sisman recounts that Johnson suggested to Boswell that he keep a journal to help him remember and to exercise his mind. Boswell had already begun to do precisely that, maintaining a journal to develop his style and to write a kind of history of his own mind. In fact, Boswell was so dedicated to his journal writing that he often cut into his time with Johnson and other activities in order to keep it up. As Sisman describes the process, "Reading Boswell's journal would be like reading his mind; reviewing his journal at a later date would enable Boswell to relive the events he had recorded. The effect was spontaneous and natural, even artless; but it resulted from conscious effort" (p. 28). As a result of Boswell's diligence and memory, his journal played a critical role in his writing of the biography: "Boswell had a remarkable memory; often only a brief note would be sufficient to prompt his recall of a long conversation, and he was able to write it up into a passage ten or twenty times its length. The practice of keeping a journal over many years had trained him to formulate in advance what he might write" (p. 138). In fact, Sisman's account of Boswell's technique is close to the heart of what his book is about, rescuing Boswell from the image that he was merely a recorder of what Johnson said enabling the reader to understand that Boswell's was a "much more complex process." "Boswell's skill was to sustain the illusion that what he wrote was just what Johnson had said. In this sleight of hand, he was triumphantly successful. His artistry concealed the extent of his invention. The naïveté he betrayed reinforced the sense of authenticity he wished to convey" (p. 139).

The descriptions of Boswell creating his journal are quite interesting. He viewed his journal as a "vast hoard of memory," compulsively taking down as much as he could and demonstrating absolutely no regard for privacy or secrecy (p. 33). Boswell made self-conscious references to his journal and other notes as his "archive" (p. 34) in an era when there was no real public sense of archives. Sisman speculates that Boswell was driven by a terror of oblivion, noting that he daydreamed about his papers being discovered some two thousand years in the future (it only took a little less than a century for the discovery to be made). Boswell's sense of the archival record as a memory device was ahead of his time. It is a concept drawn upon in the late twentieth century by scholars and others trying to understand evidence and collective memory.

Boswell's warm-up to writing the biography of Johnson was his publication of the Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, the description of an earlier trip with Johnson. The public had a difficult time with the volume's "record of private conversations" (p.102), resulting in a professional literary success but a personal disaster. People wanted to keep their distance from Boswell, fearing that he might record even their most off-hand comments. And here we have a major difference between manuscript journal and published book. "It was one thing to record private remarks in a journal: quite another to publish them in a book" (p. 109). This enters directly into a long ongoing debate about whether diaries and journals are written for private use only or whether they are really written with the intention of being read in the future by someone else. This may be something that can only be decided by examining individual cases, considering each individual's aims and intentions. Even then it is sometimes difficult to determine what the actual aim was in the compiling of a diary. My own sense is that more diaries and journals are written for public than just private use, ending the argument that somehow diaries and journals are not records as defined in more modern times. And here we see a fundamental tension in journal writing. According to Sisman, "Boswell once wrote that he wanted nothing about himself to be secret. In his journal he described behaviour that would be damaging if revealed, but left the journal about so that it could easily be read. Was this exhibitionism? Or confession? Sometimes he wrote in code, but at other times he provided explanatory details which strongly suggested that he was writing (perhaps subconsciously) for readers other than himself. His attitude to the possibility that others might read his journal remained equivocal throughout his life" (p. 33).

We also learn about Boswell's strong sensibility about facts. He solicited letters and documents from and about Johnson, and he compiled special notebooks of reminiscences about Johnson from his acquaintances. Many of the collected letters and other documents would appear in his biography. Boswell exhibited the characteristics of a persistent collector, as many in this time before well-established institutional archives would have to do if they wished to pursue their research. Boswell "continued to receive parcels of letters and collections of anecdotes; sometimes the information revealed in these would inspire a fresh round of inquiries to those who had already contributed material for the Life. Boswell found that specific questions were more fruitful than general ones, and he adopted a technique of approaching his interviewees with a prepared list of topics—which he referred to as a 'catechism'" (p. 144). Boswell was a pioneer oral historian, predating other pioneers by at least half a century. What is also interesting is that these efforts by Boswell were often employed in order to fill in missing information or to check disputed facts, a commitment to accuracy which seems almost out of character with the kind of person Boswell was—constantly seeking favors, making bad investments, often visiting whorehouses, and so forth.

Boswell's biography also fits into the eighteenth century's approach to preserving archival materials through their publication. Sisman describes how Boswell would often receive unsolicited letters and other documents from "people who felt that their own importance had been understated, or who wished to make use of this opportunity to flatter a patron. Boswell's Life of Johnson was likely to be widely read; it was rumoured to be encyclopaedic; its scope suggested that it might become, as Boswell intended, a permanent record of life and letters in the middle years of the century. Those wishing to present themselves to posterity in a flattering light knew that Boswell controlled the illumination" (p. 232). We can view this either as an early celebrity biography or the eighteenth-century precursor to People magazine, but we can also detect how closely related, at times, such documentary publication and the archival function can become. What is notable, of course, is that many other lesser publications appeared in the late eighteenth century and afterward intending to preserve documentary materials, but achieved the quality of blending documents with dialogue and reminiscences.

Finally, Sisman's study is an example of a nonpostmodern approach to literary analysis and what it can do for advancing our understanding of documents. Early on in the book Sisman states that his purpose is to "deconstruct" the writing of The Life of Johnson. This, however, is not some convoluted or theoretical exercise, but a close analysis of Boswell's work. Reading Sisman's book gives us a greater understanding of the writing of journals, the collecting of documents, the uses of evidence, and the role of oral history and reminiscences. Boswell's Presumptuous Task is a highly readable work, and the inclusion of a history of Boswell's papers makes it all the more useful for archivists and other records professionals.

Richard J. Cox
School of Information Sciences
University of Pittsburgh