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

Overview

James Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson is the most celebrated of all biographies, acknowledged as one of the greatest and most entertaining books in the English language. Yet Boswell himself has generally been considered little more than an idiot and condemned by posterity as a lecher and drunk. How could such a fool have written such a book? With great wit, Adam Sisman here tells the story of Boswell's presumptuous task-the making of the greatest biography of all time. Sisman traces the friendship between ...

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Overview

James Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson is the most celebrated of all biographies, acknowledged as one of the greatest and most entertaining books in the English language. Yet Boswell himself has generally been considered little more than an idiot and condemned by posterity as a lecher and drunk. How could such a fool have written such a book? With great wit, Adam Sisman here tells the story of Boswell's presumptuous task-the making of the greatest biography of all time. Sisman traces the friendship between Boswell and Samuel Johnson, his great mentor, and provides a fascinating account of Boswell's seven-year struggle to write The Life of Samuel Johnson.

Winner of the 2001 National Book Critics Circle Award, Biography/Autobiography.

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Editorial Reviews

From The Critics
Over the past two centuries, James Boswell has been regarded in a variety of unflattering ways. He was a self-seeking opportunist ready to ride anyone's coattails, an egotist who occasionally signed his work "A Genius," and a depressive whose mood swings often led to alcohol and prostitutes, resulting in countless hangovers and seventeen (yes, seventeen) episodes of gonorrhea. That this man wrote Life of Samuel Johnson, a groundbreaking biography still regarded as one of the greatest works in the English language, has often been dismissed, according to Sisman, as an accident. While Sisman calls Boswell "a fool in so many ways," he argues that the man's success was no fluke. Boswell's obsessively kept journal, parts of which were not discovered until this century, is used as a primary source; it reveals that Boswell was both a meticulous editor and a painstaking investigator who struggled for seven years to complete the book's final draft. According to Sisman, Boswell was neither a fool nor a genius—but he was, at least at one point in his life, a bona fide success.
—Ted Waitt

(Excerpted Review)
Library Journal
Sisman, a former publisher and author of A.J.P. Taylor: A Biography, notes in his introduction that "Boswell was the first biographer to attempt to tell the whole truth about his subject...an aim we take for granted today, but in Boswell's time a startling innovation." One might consider Sisman's study an innovation as well. Unlike Peter Martin's A Life of James Boswell (LJ 1/90), it focuses not on reassessing a gifted writer considered by his contemporaries to be a "foolish failure" but on recounting the epic story of Boswell's seven-year struggle to write the book for which he would become famous. Noting that "it was not Boswell the man that interested me so much as Boswell the biographer," Sisman seeks to answer such professional questions as "What drew Boswell to Johnson in the first place?" and "Did his ideas change as his writing progressed?" The result is an intriguing study of how Boswell translated a life into art. Under Sisman's sympathetic hand, Dr. Johnson's "lackey" emerges as a brilliant storyteller who, with "meticulous care, with long-practiced skill, and with a generous imagination...crafted a character who lived and breathed." Recommended for public and academic libraries. Robert C. Jones, Central Missouri State Univ., Warrensburg Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Deconstructing Boswell's classic Life of Johnson, former publisher Sisman reveals the process of making of this unique book and addresses fundamental questions about the nature of biography. Sisman presents Boswell primarily in his role as friend and biographer of Samuel Johnson. Born into a family of Scottish gentry, educated in law, and craving recognition as a writer, Boswell met the renowned author when he was 22, and this fateful meeting became a turning point in his life. Gradually, Johnson became for Boswell a means of making sense of his own life, of achieving popularity for himself in the glow shed by his celebrity friend, and of gaining access to the heart of London's literary and artistic circles. Over the course of their 21-year relationship, Boswell and Johnson repeatedly met in London, traveled in Scotland together, and exchanged many letters. Although distressed by the fact that his mentor did not mention him in his will, Boswell nevertheless eagerly volunteered to be Johnson's biographer after his death. He initially published his journal documenting their tour of the Hebrides, which was marked by a strikingly innovative, informal tone—as well as surprisingly coarse details. This new style of biographical writing culminated in 1791 with the monumental Life of Johnson. Sisman describes the many obstacles that arose on Boswell's path toward the completion of this project: uncontrollable bouts of drinking, whoring, and gambling, the death of his wife, and the failure of his political career. Throughout the text, Boswell accorded his own persona an unabashedly prominent position beside his main subject. Overall, the Life was a success, but the same characteristicsthat made the book so entertaining also provoked criticism: Boswell was reprimanded by many a prudish biographer of the day for going overboard in exposing Johnson's idiosyncrasies, slovenly behavior, and hot temper. Over time, however, such probing into the great author's inner life elicited increasing appreciation, as Boswell's new breed of biography took root in European letters. Sisman draws inspiration from Boswell, exposing for the reader the inner mechanism of a masterpiece creation, and never hesitating to provide lurid details about Boswell himself.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780142001752
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 9/28/2002
  • Edition description: 1st American Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 368
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.05 (h) x 0.86 (d)

Meet the Author

Adam Sisman is the author of A. J. P. Taylor: A Biography. He lives with his wife, the novelist Robyn Sisman, and their two children.

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Read an Excerpt

INTRODUCTION

To write the life of him who excelled all mankind in writing the lives of others . . . may be reckoned in me a presumptuous task.

This is the story of a book. Boswell's "presumptuous task" was to write the life of his friend and mentor, Samuel Johnson; in the pages that follow I have tried to show how he set about his task, and eventually, after almost seven years of effort and agony, fulfilled it.

Anyone with an interest in biography soon becomes interested in Boswell's Life of Johnson. It stands next to other biographies as Shakespeare stands beside other playwrights: towering above them all. For more than two centuries it has been continuously in print, and in that time it has won innumerable admirers. No other biography has given so much pleasure; no other biographer has created such a vivid central character. It has become a truism that, as a result of Boswell's extraordinary book, Samuel Johnson is better known to us than any other man in history.

As well as being a famous and much-loved book, the Life of Johnson is a work that raises fundamental questions about the nature of biography itself. Is it possible for a biographer to understand fully what it is like to be another human being? However careful and diligent the writer, can biography be accurate, that is, faithful to life? Everybody knows "Dr Johnson," or so we think; but is the man we know from the ink pages of Boswell's book the same Johnson that strode the streets of London 250 years ago? Is biography science, or art? History or fiction?

In his book James Boswell made a heroic attempt to display his friend "as he really was." He did not conceal his partiality; his reverence, affection, and even love for Johnson are obvious throughout, and an endearing feature of his biography. But neither did he conceal Johnson's faults: his rudeness, his prejudices, and his temper. Boswell was the first biographer to attempt to tell the whole truth about his subject, to portray his lapses, his blemishes, and his weaknesses as well as his great qualities: an aim we take for granted today, but in Boswell's time a startling innovation.

Boswell reconstructed Johnson's conversations from fragmentary records. He collected memorabilia of Johnson from every possible source, and then went to unprecedented lengths to verify the accuracy of the material he used. He insisted that "everything relevant to so great a man is worth observing," and though much ridiculed for it, he described the minute details of the way Johnson dressed, what he ate, and how he behaved. The result is that Johnson, a remote, venerable figure to most of his contemporaries, appears to us a warm, living human being.

Boswell's ambition was nothing less than to resuscitate his dead friend in print. Indeed (so Boswell claimed), had Johnson's other friends been as thorough in recording what he said and did, "he might have been almost entirely preserved" As it was, Boswell boasted that in his biography Johnson might be seen "more completely than any man who ever lived."

However, despite Boswell's determination to gather up every remaining scrap of information about his subject, aspects of Johnson's life were forever hidden from him. On a practical level, the two men did not meet until Johnson was fifty-three; and though Boswell came to know Johnson very well indeed afterwards, his knowledge was inevitably circumscribed. Boswell was also limited by his own limitations: he could not imagine what he could not comprehend. Like all biographers, he could show only what he could see. The man we come to know in the pages of Boswell's book is, so far as we can tell, faithful to life, but only to the life that Boswell witnessed and understood.

One way of reading the Life of Johnson is as a hybrid: a memoir concealed within a life. Boswell pays much less attention to the period of Johnson's life before they met: his subjects first fifty-three years take up less than one-fifth of his book, the remaining twenty-one more than four-fifths. From this point on, the reader is almost constantly aware of Boswell at Johnson's side; the narrative is much more lively once he appears. The special flavour of the Life of Johnson derives from the fact that the biographer is a character in his own book. Readers see Boswell coming to London in the hope of meeting Johnson; writing him letters that he did not send; contemplating writing his life; and proposing the idea to him, very tentatively. It is like watching a play when you can see the stage-hands, the actors waiting to come on, and indeed the playwright scribbling in the wings. Apparently everything is on view; but the more that can be seen, the less obvious it becomes where the true drama is taking place.

Though the Samuel Johnson evoked in Boswell's biography is one of the most powerful personalities in literature, as real as any character in fiction, he never quite escapes from his disciple, James Boswell: they remain as much a pair as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, or Holmes and Watson. Indeed, much of the pleasure in reading the Life of Johnson comes from the presence of Boswell as narrator, just as the presence of Watson (whom Holmes compared to Boswell) supplies much of the pleasure in the Sherlock Holmes stories. There are passages where Johnson appears to be sharing a confidence with the reader, while Boswell struggles to keep up, as if the writer was the last one to be let in on the joke. Johnson's amusement shines through the surface of Boswell's prose.

On the other hand, there are many occasions when Boswell seems almost like a ventriloquist, putting words into Johnson's mouth. He became adept at steering the conversation in directions which would stimulate Johnson to say something memorable; he was proud of this ability, though often it required him to play the straight man alongside Johnson, the butt of Johnson's wit. In this sense Boswell was creating his own copy, the reporter making news for himself.

Johnsonian scholars complain that Boswell has monopolized Johnson: that his gigantic biography dwarfs anything else written about his subject, or even by him. Edmund Burke, who knew them both, remarked that Johnson appears greater in Boswell's books than in his own. Today, people are much more likely to read Boswell's book about Johnson than they are to read Johnson himself. But that is not to say that Boswell was the greater man. Johnson's greatness lay in his mind, the art of thinking, that process which Boswell found so difficult; and it found its most lasting expression in his conversation — more lasting than his writing, which even in his own lifetime was beginning to seem dated. Johnson's particular genius was to express in trenchant form eternal truths; like Oscar Wilde, he is perennially quotable.

Boswell kept a record of Johnson's talk in brief memoranda, noted down as soon as possible afterwards, later written up into a journal, which eventually became a principal source for his biography. This method of recording was flawed; even if the notes were scribbled down the same evening, there was plenty of opportunity for error. Though Boswell had a remarkable memory, it was not infallible; and to reconstruct Johnson's conversation Boswell had to call on his own imagination as well. In this sense the Johnson of the Life is Boswell's creation. But Boswell spent so much time in the company of his subject that Johnson's forms of speech, even the patterns of his thought, were deeply imprinted on the younger maws mind. Thus Boswell was to some extent Johnson's creation also, and thus he was able to recapture a version of what Johnson had said many years afterwards, and hand it on to us.

The Life of Johnson can be read as an unending contest between author and subject for posterity. Johnson and Boswell are locked together for all time, in part-struggle, part-embrace. Boswell win forever be known as Johnson's sidekick, remembered principally because he wrote the life of a greater man; Johnson is immortalized but also imprisoned by the Life, known best as Boswell portrayed him. Each is a creation of the other.

For the first hundred years or so after the Life of Johnson was published, critics tended to take the line that it was a great book written by a simpleton who just happened to be in the right place at the right time. The set-piece conversations seemed no more than a naïve record. Then a succession of astonishing finds-the literary equivalent of the discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb—revealed a "colossal hoard" of Boswell manuscripts, including the manuscripts of the Life of Johnson and its precursor The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, and his journals, among the most revealing ever written. We now have much more information about the biographer than we do about his subject. From being regarded as a little man who wrote a great book, Boswell came to be seen as an important literary figure, a pioneer of modern biography—and of autobiography, for the focus of academic interest has shifted from subject to author, from Boswell's books to his journals and manuscripts. It has become clear that many of the best-loved passages in the Life of Johnson originated in Boswell's autobiographical journal, and that Boswell was a much more careful and ambitious writer than anybody had supposed. No longer is Boswell regarded as a mere "stenographer," a secretary taking down Johnson's dictation, but as a writer of consummate skill, even genius. But just as these discoveries have led to a greater appreciation of Boswell as a writer, so they have prompted fresh questions about the fidelity of his book. The publication of Boswell's letters and journals started a scholarly debate about the accuracy of the Life of Johnson: was it really what it appeared to be, or was it a disguised piece of fiction? Was Boswells insistence on authenticity a cover? To what extent had Boswell "invented" Dr Johnson, as George Bernard Shaw suggested? And, indeed, himself?

When I became interested in the subject, I first thought of writing a full biography of Boswell, but I soon changed my mind. For one thing, there are several good biographies of Boswell already. I also found that my attention tended to flag when Boswell was not in Johnson's company; it was not Boswell the man that interested me (though he was a very interesting man), so much as Boswell the biographer. As someone who had worked in publishing, I had witnessed the scramble to memorialize an important literary figure after his death; and as a writer, I had experienced the pressures of writing a biography in competition with rivals. I became absorbed in trying to answer questions such as: What drew Boswell to Johnson in the first place? Why did he want to write about Johnson, and why did he persist, in the face of so much adversity? How did he set about his task? Did his ideas change as his writing progressed? Many of the biographical issues Boswell faced are commonplace nowadays, but were quite new when he tackled them. How did he evaluate the varied and sometimes contradictory material he gathered? Why did he put so much stress on verification? How did he deal with "delicate" topics: for example, Johnson's sexual dalliance with a young widow, while his wife was asleep in the next room? Boswell's journals and manuscripts provide a cornucopia of fresh information for anyone seeking the answer to such questions.

*Endnotes were omitted

—Reprinted from Boswell's Presumptuous Task by Adam Sisman by permission of Penguin Books, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 2002, Adam Sisman. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

Acknowledgements

Author's Note

Introduction

Part One: Life Lived

1. Immaturity
2. Forwardness
3. Subordination

Part Two: Life Written

4. Independence
5. Collaboration
6. Anger
7. Discretion
8. Application
9. Rivalry
10. Bereavement
11. Humiliation
12. Struggle

Part Three: Life Published 

13. Despair
14. Posterity

List of Abbreviation Used in the Notes

Notes

Select Bibliography

Index

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Reading Group Guide

BOSWELL'S PRESUMPTUOUS TASK
by Adam Sisman

 

INTRODUCTION

When it appeared in 1791, James Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson was the most innovative and most intimate biography ever written. It revealed its subject more fully, more dramatically, and more completely than any previous biography—and, arguably, more than any biography since.

Adam Sisman's Boswell's Presumptuous Task gives us an innovative and intimate account of the making of that book, a biography of Boswell's biography of Johnson. It reveals Boswell's literary methods, his personal foibles, and the widely varied critical reception his masterpiece has received over the past two centuries. In doing so, Sisman engages questions of essential importance to the biographical enterprise: Can the biographer ever truly understand another human being? Can a biography be fully accurate? How faithful should the biographer be to his/her source materials? How much of the biographer's own life inevitably intrudes into his or her work?

In Boswell's own case, Sisman shows that far from being a sycophantic recorder of Johnson's brilliant conversations, Boswell exerted a high degree of literary skill in crafting, editing, and in some cases altering his subject's remarks. Though he was scrupulous about checking his impressions against others who knew Johnson well, and tenacious about providing sources for all his material (a practice now standard but extraordinary at the time), Boswell was willing to sacrifice accuracy for aesthetic effect. The two men were friends for more than twenty years, yet there were sides to Johnson forever closed to Boswell. Sisman's book gives readers a clear and probing analysis of the ways in which Boswell knew Johnson, how that knowledge affected him, and how he shaped it into what is widely regarded as the greatest biography ever written. Boswell's Presumptuous Task gives us a vivid portrait of Boswell as a writer—his inner turmoil, chaotic outer life, and heroic perseverance—struggling to do justice to his subject.

That portrait reveals not only Boswell the man and writer, but the very origins of modern biographical writing, for Boswell turned biography away from the kind of sloppy encomium then the norm towards the more rigorous, exhaustive, and balanced approach that we now take for granted. He was tireless in gathering up every letter to and from Johnson, in verifying what Johnson said and did, and in including as much material, both good and bad, as was humanly possible. Boswell professed to "write, not his panegyric, but his Life; which, great and good as he was, must not be supposed to be entirely perfect." To reveal Johnson's true character, he sought to include "shade as well as light" and to focus not only on the great events but also "the minute details of daily life." These were groundbreaking innovations in Boswell's time and paved the way for modern biography as we now know it.

Sisman also shows the degree to which Boswell prefigures modern autobiography. In his journals and diaries, Boswell was an unflinching examiner of his own behavior and, more importantly, of his own mind. Sisman suggests that Boswell anticipates Freud in the depth of his introspection and self-analysis, revealing "everything in his mind without restraint, concealment, or distortion." In many ways, our own age of self-searching memoir finds its origins in Boswell.

But Boswell's Presumptuous Task is not only an exploration of the beginnings of modern biography and autobiography. It is also a book about one of the most unlikely and fruitful friendships in English literary history. Sisman's account shows us the inner workings of that friendship, and elucidates the masterful work that resulted from it.

 

ABOUT ADAM SISMAN Adam Sisman is the author of A. J. P. Taylor: A Biography. He lives with his wife, the novelist Robyn Sisman, and their two children.

 

AN INTERVIEW WITH ADAM SISMAN

How would you explain the ongoing interest, amongst both scholars and general readers, in Johnson and Boswell? What drew you to write about the making of Boswell's book?

The simple answer is that the two are perennially fascinating. Hundreds of books have been written about them, yet there is always more to say, as I hope I have demonstrated.

The recent discovery of Boswell's papers—his letters, manuscripts, and his extraordinary journals—has proved a gold-mine for scholars, and led to a complete reassessment of his work. He is now recognized as a writer of great skill, even genius: very different from the fool who merely copied down what people said, the image that prevailed for the first 150 years or so after his death. I was first drawn to the subject after writing a biography (of the historian A.J.P. Taylor, himself a biographer), in the process of which I became interested in biography itself. This led me on to Boswell's The Life of Johnson, the first and arguably the greatest of all biographies. And the more I learned about Boswell and Johnson, the more I wanted to know about these two unlikely friends. As A.J.P. Taylor once said, "When I want to find out about something, I write a book about it."

How would you describe Boswell's influence on biography? Has this influence been entirely positive?

It's hard to assess Boswell's influence. Undoubtedly his book was a landmark, "a new species of biography" as one contemporary called it; he set a new standard of verisimilitude. But there was no "school of Boswell"; his work stands alone. More generally, I argue in my book that Boswell's Johnson was a moral and intellectual hero, who inspired the young Romantic poets, and who continues to inspire readers to this day—especially, I think, in the United States.

How would you respond to those who, like Donald Greene, feel that Boswell's reputation has grown so much that it overshadows Johnson's? How would you answer Greene's charge that Boswell's apparent hero-worship of Johnson "is a mask, disguising from himself and others an unconscious wish to cut Johnson down to size and establish, in the end, the superiority of Boswell"?

Greene's charge seems to me a perverse misreading: far from wishing to cut Johnson down to size in his book, Boswell went to extraordinary lengths to defend him against what he saw as unfair criticism, for example from Mrs. Piozzi. I think it's quite clear that Boswell revered Johnson. I argue in my book that Boswell found it profoundly reassuring and indeed psychologically necessary to assert Johnson's superiority.

I do agree with Greene that there is a regrettable modern tendency to praise Boswell at Johnson's expense. But if Boswell's reputation now overshadows Johnson's, that is not his fault. Indeed, Boswell would have been horrified at the prospect.

You describe in great detail Boswell's method in writing The Life of Samuel Johnson. Could you tell us something about your own way of working on Boswell's Presumptuous Task?

I can't claim that my own way of working was as colorful as Boswell's! But there are certain similarities. Like him, I live in the countryside but am repeatedly drawn to the city; like him, I was distracted by domestic concerns, and by the need to pursue another career to provide essential income, so that there were periods of a year or more when I did no writing at all; and like him, I was plagued by anxieties of various kinds, including the fear that I might be scooped by a competitor. I see now that these were misplaced; but I think such anxieties are common—perhaps universal—in writers.

What is your sense of the state of the art of biography now? Are there any recent literary biographies that approach the mastery of Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson?

Right now biography is going through an interesting stage, as biographers experiment with the form in playful and sometimes outlandish ways. Meanwhile fine biographies of the more conventional type are published every year. Michael Holroyd has described this as the "golden age of biography" (though I see that he has also said recently that "biography is dead").

But there is no biography, recent or otherwise, comparable to The Life of Samuel Johnson. As I write in the concluding sentence of my book, never again will there be such a combination of subject, author, and opportunity.

Would you agree with Carlyle's claim that Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson is a book "beyond any other product of the eighteenth century"?

No. How can you compare works as different as, say, Tristram Shandy and The Life of Samuel Johnson? I don't think it's profitable to rate books in this way. But I am sure that The Life of Samuel Johnson is a masterpiece, one of the outstanding books of its own or any century, a work that continues to delight and enrich readers more than two hundred years after it was written.

You argue that Boswell was a kind of pre-Freudian Freudian, "the first biographer to attempt to tell the whole truth about his subject, to portray his lapses, his blemishes, and his weaknesses as well as his great qualities: an aim we take for granted today, but in Boswell's time a startling innovation." What prompted Boswell to take such an unprecedented approach, and to persist in it? Why did he feel a similar need to expose himself so completely in his journals?

The prompt was Johnson himself, who in a famous essay on biography criticized the then prevalent view that the faults of the dead should be suppressed or glossed over. On the contrary, "if nothing but the bright side of characters should be shown, we should sit down in despondency, and think it utterly impossible to imitate them in any thing." Boswell quoted from this essay in his preamble to The Life of Samuel Johnson.

Early in their friendship Johnson encouraged Boswell to write a journal, but as Boswell then revealed, he was already doing so. One can only speculate on Boswell's motives for keeping such a frank and potentially damaging journal. He certainly believed that the act of writing regularly was beneficial in itself. He claimed that reading the journal would enable him to monitor and thus improve his own behavior; and also that it might serve as "a store of entertainment for my after life"—perhaps contradictory ambitions. Boswell was anxious that his journal might be used against him, but he was haunted by a morbid fear of evanescence and a sense that his life meant nothing unless it were recorded. He had to be completely open in his journals, because he used them as a means of exploring his own thoughts and feelings. Maybe only a man with such a combination of vanity and naïveté could have written so openly about himself.

 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. How has reading Boswell's Presumptuous Task changed your perception of Boswell? Of Johnson? Of the relationship between the two men?
  2. Sisman argues that Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson was "a pioneering work which opened up new possibilities for biography" (p. 314). What did Boswell accomplish that had never been attempted in biography before? What is unusual in his approach to, and presentation of, his subject?
  3. In a Rambler essay, Johnson wrote of biography that "no species of writing is more worthy of cultivation" (p. 153). Sisman suggests that Johnson esteemed biography because he "believed in the power of example, the value of learning about other men's lives so that one might live one's own life better" (p. 154). Is this still a major motive for reading biographies today? What other reasons draw people to the form? Does what Boswell learned about Samuel Johnson's life appear to have helped him to live his own?
  4. In his introduction, Sisman suggests that, "the Life of Johnson can be read as an unending contest between author and subject for posterity....Boswell will forever be known as Johnson's sidekick, remembered principally because he wrote the life of a greater man; Johnson is immortalized but also imprisoned by the Life, known best as Boswell portrayed him" (p. xviii). Some critics, most notably Donald Greene, have recently complained that Boswell's reputation has become "preposterously inflated," while a scholarly edition of Johnson's works remains unpublished for lack of funds. Who has won this contest for posterity? Has Boswell become a more important writer than Johnson? Is Boswell deserving of greater fame than the man he wrote about?
  5. For the greater part of two centuries, Boswell was considered, at best, hardly more than a stenographer, merely copying down Samuel Johnson's brilliant conversations, and at worst, in the words of Macaulay, "a man of the meanest and feeblest intellect...servile and impertinent, shallow and pedantic, a bigot and a sot, bloated with family pride, and eternally blustering about the dignity of a born gentleman, yet stooping to be a talebearer, an eaves-dropper, a common butt in the taverns of London" (p. 293). In what ways does Sisman's book challenge both of these views? What more nuanced picture of Boswell, as both a writer and a man, emerges from Sisman's book?
  6. How would you explain the relationship between Boswell's disordered life—his drunkenness, whoring, and professional failures—to his admiration of Johnson?
  7. Boswell was attacked during his day for divulging too much of Johnson's private life. The Reverend Dr. Vicesimus Knox complained that "Instead of an instructive recital, [biography] is becoming an instrument to the mere gratification of an impertinent, not to say a malignant, curiosity" (p. 135). Is this charge in any way just, or merely a reflection of eighteenth-century prudishness? How would Knox, and others like him, react to today's tell-all biographies?
  8. Sisman shows Boswell in relation to three powerful and domineering men: his father, Johnson, and Lord Lonsdale. What do we learn about Boswell through his interactions with these three figures?
  9. Boswell appears to be trapped between the Scylla and Charybdis of inauthenticity on the one hand, and literary incompetence on the other. If he merely recorded Johnson's conversations, his Life is authentic but lacks literary sophistication. If he manipulates Johnson's words for greater effects, he demonstrates his literary skill but renders his book less authentic. To what extent should the biographer remain faithful to his sources? To what extent should he/she massage those sources for aesthetic effects? Was Boswell right to rewrite and otherwise alter some of Johnson's remarks?
  10. At the beginning of his book, Sisman asks: "Is it possible for a biographer to understand fully what it is like to be another human being?...Is biography science, or art? History or fiction?" (p. xv-xvi). Based on your reading of Boswell's Presumptuous Task, how would you answer these questions? How do you think Sisman would answer them?
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Our reader reviews allow you to share your comments on titles you liked, or didn't, with others. By submitting an online review, you are representing to Barnes & Noble.com that all information contained in your review is original and accurate in all respects, and that the submission of such content by you and the posting of such content by Barnes & Noble.com does not and will not violate the rights of any third party. Please follow the rules below to help ensure that your review can be posted.

Reviews by Our Customers Under the Age of 13

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