Boswell, Johnson, & the Birth of Modern Biography

When was the last time a notable person with lots to hide (obsessive-compulsive disorder, a refusal to bathe, the fact that he wore wigs that didn't fit) insisted that his biographer measure and record every fault with seismographic precision? It may well have been a good 236 years ago, on the morning in 1773 when Samuel Johnson divulged his theory on biography to James Boswell: "I well remember that Dr. Johnson maintained, that 'If a man is to write A Panegyrick, he may keep vices out of sight; but if he professes to write A Life, he must represent it as it really was:' And in the Hebrides he maintained, as appears from my Journal, that a man's intimate friend should mention his faults, if he writes his life."

Clearly—clear to Boswell anyway—he was not merely recording one more of Johnson's opinions. He was getting his marching orders. Johnson, the greatest literary critic of his time, was telling Boswell how to write what would eventually become his Life of Johnson. What neither man could foresee was that Boswell's biography would one day be far better known and beloved than its subject. Johnson, besides being a fine critic, was also our most accomplished lexicographer, having almost singlehandedly compiled the first major dictionary of the English language. He was an accomplished poet and no mean essayist. And yet, we remember him best not for these accomplishments but as the garrulous subject of Boswell's Life. Today it's Boswell who is the more widely read. Such is the power of biography.

Since long before Plutarch, the story of a life has been our most durable and most enduringly popular literary form—it was Johnson's favorite reading. In our time alone it has multiplied into a dizzying number of forms—authorized, unauthorized, oral biography and autobiography, the group biography, the biographical novel, not to mention the online biography. What is Facebook, or most blogs, but a slew of autobiographies constantly in progress? But the most extraordinary thing about modern biography is how much, at its best, it still resembles the Boswellian model. In writing the life of Johnson—and following his subject's dictates on how to do it—Boswell did not only give us a great biography. He gave us the formula: painstaking research, strong narrative, and in-depth, unflinching portraiture. Were either man to come back to life, he would have no trouble recognizing what he helped create.

What might shock both men, however, are the ends to which their techniques have been directed. Boswell was blushingly frank in his journals, and Johnson was blunt in his judgments, but both men were circumspect, a word not often associated with biographies today, when the history of biography can be said to parallel, where it does not overlap, the history of the erosion of private life. There's no denying the proliferation of what Joyce Carol Oates defined as "pathography"—works in which a biographer fastens on to every loathsome detail of a subject's life, with the result that the subject is not cut down to size but simply cut down. (But is that so new? A century ago Oscar Wilde observed, "Every great man has his disciples, and it is always Judas who writes the biography.")

But the path to pathography was surprisingly long. Nineteenth-century biographers weren't interested in flaws or the interior lives of their subjects. Their motto might well have been "Never look under the hood." The result was a century's worth of two- and three-volume hagiography that might easily be confused with embalming. Then, in 1918, Lytton Strachey brought the art of biography back from the dead. No book is more frequently cited as a model by contemporary biographers than Eminent Victorians, Strachey's withering demolition of four prominent individuals (Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale, Gen. Charles Gordon, and Dr. Thomas Arnold) who, as Strachey saw it, personified the hypocrisy, prudery, sanctimony, and maudlin patriotism that had condemned hundreds of thousands of young men to needless death in the Great War. Strachey restored to biography its ability to take the full measure of a subject, to celebrate where celebration is called for, but also to be bluntly critical when the occasion demanded it. He got his facts straight and wrote beautifully, proving that biography could aspire to art. He was also concise, the one lesson that seems to have been lost on his descendants.

Logorrhea seems like a high price to pay when you're on page 300 of a life and you're not halfway home, but in biography there's always room for another point of view, a new light on a hitherto unexamined facet of a life. There is no longer any such thing as the definitive biography, if there ever really was one. Here, too, Johnson gives us a prime example. We continue to think of Boswell's biography as the best ever, but 80 percent of it focuses on Johnson after the two met in 1763. Boswell gives no inkling of what Johnson was like when he was young and an insecure bumpkin striving, on nothing more than the strength of his wits, to make it in the big city. He has little to say about Johnson's liberated ideas about women, race, or poverty, and, weirdest of all, pays scant attention to Johnson the writer. Boswell sincerely strove for a rounded portrait that included flaws (Johnson's bad table manners, his arrogance and rudeness), but time and again, Boswell's hero-worshiping got the better of him. He only alludes to Johnson's melancholy, without much of an inkling on how hard Johnson fought against depression or how deeply he feared eternal damnation—in Johnson's opinion, entertaining sinful thoughts was enough to send you to hell.

In fact, Boswell wasn't even Johnson's first biographer. Both Sir John Hawkins and Johnson's great friend Hester Thrale had already published competing and very different accounts before Life appeared. That squabbling set a precedent that continues to this day. Johnson has been the subject of several major biographies in the past half century, three of them in the past year, his tercentenary, and there is something to recommend all three. Read Peter Martin for a keen appreciation of Johnson the writer, David Nokes for a shrewd demonstration of how the hardships and bad health of Johnson's youth foreshadowed his struggles as a mature man, and Jeffrey Meyers for the splendid manner in which he places Johnson in the context of 18th-century England—not to mention for the latest dose of good old 18th-century pathology.

After Hester Thrale's death in 1821, her effects were found to include an object she labeled "Johnson's padlock." This, along with passages in her writings and letters written to her by Johnson, ignited a controversy in 1948, when Katherine Balderston, the editor of Thrale's papers, suggested that Johnson was masochistic and—not to mince words—into bondage. Most contemporary biographers have since taken issue with Balderston's suggestion, but not all. Meyers insistently agrees with her. He concentrates on several well-known sentences and phrases in the writings of Johnson and Thrale. Johnson made a 1771 diary entry: "Mad thoughts of fetters and handcuffs." He once told Thrale, in a conversation concerning a man who murdered his mistress, that a "woman has such power between the ages of 25 and 45, that she may tye a man to a post and whip him if she will." Thrale commented on this observation: "This he knew of him self was literally and strictly true I am sure." There is also a 1773 letter from Johnson, in French (lest the servants see it), to Thrale while he was staying in her house, begging her to pay him more attention or lock him up if he got in her way (her mother was dying and her children were then threatened by a measles epidemic). Her reply to this plea, in which she addresses him like a child—because he was behaving like one?—concludes, "Do not quarrel with your governess for not using the rod enough." From this evidence, Meyers builds a whips-and-chains relationship between Johnson and Thrale, and he does it so compellingly that, had you read no other accounts of Johnson's life, you'd believe it, too. Most recent Johnson biographers, while they acknowledge that he had a masochistic streak, do not go as far as Meyers, and with good reason, since most of his evidence is circumstantial. True or not, Meyers has supplied one indisputable contribution: the best rationale for multiple versions of Johnson's life—or anyone's.

As much as we know about Johnson, we will never know all we want to know. Or about Lincoln, Shakespeare, or Cleopatra—any great man or woman, famous or not. As Johnson observed, "There has rarely passed a life of which a judicious and faithful narrative would not be useful." One of the brighter aspects of our time is that we are approaching the good doctor's unrestricted views on who qualifies for a biography. Before the last century, few people set great store by slave narratives or the lives of women or of ordinary people. Now we crave them. Generations define themselves by the styles of biographies they read. The Victorians sought a world of moral uplift, and the biographies they wrote and read reflect that. In our time, when pluralism and cultural democracy are in the ascendant, you find every style imaginable. In the field of biography, more is more. To paraphrase what Johnson said about London: anyone who is tired of biography is tired of life.