Boswell’s Presumptuous Task

Boswell’s Presumptuous Task by Adam Sisman

What did it win?

National Book Critics Circle Award 2002

What’s it all about?

Boswell’s struggle to write the Life of Johnson.

Was it really any good?

It’s certainly an enjoyable trip down a well-traveled road. But it’s also hard to recommend to anyone already familiar with Boswell’s story – which I imagine is pretty much anyone with an interest in reading it. Sisman is obviously going after Simon Winchester’s audience, but Winchester’s light-reading pop histories have taken relatively obscure and neglected historical figures for their subject (James Murray and W. C. Minor in The Professor and the Madman, William Smith in The Map That Changed the World). Sisman can hardly say the same.

The story of Boswell’s presumptuous task is the stuff of literary legend, but not because it has grown in the telling. Johnson scholars (and Boswell, in this regard, ranks among the first) have always been a hard-headed bunch when it comes to getting the facts. To their awesome mountain of Johnsoniana Sisman has nothing new to add, and little insight to offer (his conclusion – that the Life of Johnson is a unique work, and that “never again will there be such a combination of subject, author and opportunity” – struck me as particularly weak). Instead, the most interesting material in the book is found on the margin. Sam and Bozzy are well-known characters, but for introducing us to as marvelous a villain as Boswell’s would-be patron James Lowther, Lord Lonsdale, Sisman deserves a special round of thanks.

Except for the final chapter, describing the critical fall-out over Boswell and his great book, the quick pace of the narrative never flags. But then a biography of James Boswell would have to try very hard to be dull. It is difficult to think of another major literary figure who has provoked so much exasperation. Perhaps some of this is due to the fact that he was so transparent. One wonders if his famous journals would have revealed anything that wasn’t already evident to those who knew him. But isn’t knowing too much, and feeling that it is too much, what makes him our contemporary? Wasn’t everything about him presumptuous?

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