Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Macaulay's Boswell's Johnson

Any biographer will tell you that the real bummer about reviews of biographies is that reviewers almost never pay attention to the book at hand – the care you've lavished on research, on interpretation, on careful & thoughtful structuring; instead, they spent their time talking about the subject of the biography. That's certainly true of The Poem of a Life: of the four most prominent reviews the thing got, I'd estimate there were maybe two paragraphs total which paid more attention to the book I'd written than to LZ's life & career. Two reviewers said I'd done a nifty job; another said that I'd been thorough & careful, but still hadn't got to the quintessential LZ; and one (may he rot in hell), thoroughly despising LZ from the get-go, dismissed my own endless labors as a dull slog.

It's true that Thomas Babington Macaulay's review of John Croker's edition of Boswell's Life of Johnson, in The Edinburgh Review in 1831, spends more time on Dr. J than it does on either Boswell or Croker, his editor. But then again, Macaulay's got lots of time – the review spreads out over 25 closely spaced pages in my printout. Those were the days, when both reviewers and readers of reviews had serious stamina.

Cut to the chase: this is one of the best bad reviews I've ever read. Macaulay, a staunch Whig, has some serious bones to pick with the Tory Croker, who'd apparently bested him in Parliamentary debate. The first long stretch of the review is an absolutely withering dismissal of Croker's edition: its annotations are rife with factual errors; Croker is a dunce when it comes to translating schoolboy Latin; and Croker, when writing his notes, doesn't recognize the difference between a point that needs elucidating and something everyone finds obvious. Croker's notes
remind us of nothing so much as of those profound and interesting annotations which are pencilled by sempstresses and apothecaries' boys on the dog-eared margins of novels borrowed from circulating libraries; "How beautiful!" "Cursed prosy!" "I don't like Sir Reginald Malcolm at all." "I think Pelham is a sad dandy."
More crucially, Croker's edition of Boswell is the first of the "complete" Boswells: he has supplemented the original volumes of the Life not merely with the Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (which was after all something of a dry run for the biography as a whole, & to which Boswell refers his readers in the text of the Life), but with long passages from other contemporary biographies of Johnson – Sir John Hawkins's, Hester Piozzi's (Mrs. Thrale). And this Macaulay simply can't abide:
An editor might as well publish Thucydides with extracts from Diodorus interspersed, or incorporate the Lives of Suetonius the History and Annals of Tacitus.
The final long stretch, in which Macaulay looks back at Johnson's writings from a half-century's distance, is very interesting indeed (if it exemplifies the reviewer's trap I mentioned earlier, focusing on the subject rather than the book itself). Macaulay is the beginning of the tradition of regarding the figure of Johnson, as embodied in Boswell's Life, as far more interesting & important than Johnson's own writings. But his dismissal isn't by any means offhanded, but is based on a close and canny knowledge of Johnson's works, and the very real limitations of those works. Johnson, it would seem, is in the final analysis simply better suited to be a 19th-century Englishman in his conversation (recorded so assiduously by Boswell) than in his writings, which are fenced in by all sorts of 18th-century conventions. Macaulay is particularly good on Johnson's criticism; his judgments
are the judgments of a strong but enslaved understanding. The mind of the critic was hedged round by an uninterrupted fence of prejudices and superstitions. Within his narrow limits, he displayed a vigour and an activity which ought to have enabled him to clear the barrier that confined him.
The middle section of Macaulay's review, his assessment of Boswell and Boswell's book, is justly famous (& was terrifically influential for many decades, until the discovery of Boswell's vast archive of papers & the reconstruction of his really quite systematic working methods). The short version: Boswell was a boob, a toad-eater, a sycophant, a hero-worshipper who had almost no self-understanding or proper self-regard; therefore (with the strong assistance of his retentive memory and obsessive note-taking) he was the perfect biographer, and his book has never been matched in its genre.
Many of the greatest men that ever lived have written biography. Boswell was one of the smallest men that ever lived, and he has beaten them all.
I think I'm most fascinated, however, by a long passage towards the middle of the review in which Macaulay delves into the literary sociology of Johnson's career. In his account, Johnson came of age at a moment when the patronage economy of literature was in sharp decline, and there was as yet no substantial, dependable literary market economy in place: the moment of "Grub Street," in short. It's all better now, Macaulay assures us: now a truly talented writer is assured of gaining a decent living among the publishing houses of 1831. But Johnson entered the literary marketplace at a particularly tenuous moment, and everything about him – his insistence that no one except a "blockhead" ever wrote except for money, his slovenly habits, his rapacious appetite at table – were shaped by that early experience of living hand to mouth.

Like Richard Holmes in his luminous Dr Johnson & Mr Savage, Macaulay sees the impecunious poet Richard Savage as Johnson's ur-influence: or as the cautionary tale that would loom over his writing life. Savage spent his brief life trying to make ends meet by high means and low; and he found himself caught between the decline of the patronage economy – which he courted, with mixed success – and the rise of the market economy – which he as well entered, with similarly mixed success. Johnson had to choose between the two, and in the end, he cast his lot with the marketplace, as is most famously marked in his letter to Lord Chesterfield, when the nobleman (who'd ignored Johnson's earlier overtures for support) posed himself as a patron for the just-finished Dictionary:
Seven years, my lord, have now past since I waited in your outward rooms or was repulsed from your door, during which time I have been pushing on my work through difficulties of which it is useless to complain, and have brought it at last to the verge of publication without one act of assistance, one word of encouragement, or one smile of favour. Such treatment I did not expect, for I never had a patron before. . . . Is not a patron, my lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and when he has reached ground, encumbers him with help? The notice which you have been pleased to take of my labours, had it been early, had been kind: but it has been delayed till I am indifferent and cannot enjoy it; till I am solitary and cannot impart it; till I am known and do not want it.
The Dictionary defines "patron" as "One who countenances, supports, or protects. Commonly a wretch who supports with insolence, and is paid with flattery."


Michael Peverett said...

You displayed a kind of genius in drawing such a pure stream from so filthy a source (as Macaulay might have said, probably about Wycherley). I have to say I loathe that pig-headed review (in which I seem to see the source of that dreadful tradition of self-applauding opinionativeness that has disfigured Fleet St ever since, and still does) - and I've only a very qualified admiration, (certainly none of Macaulay's sentimental fondness), for "Boswell". Johnson was a bully in his elderly talk, but he had been and was still sometimes a great writer. Mrs Piozzi's is the Johnson book I care about.

Why when I get round to commenting do I always seem to be disagreeing with you, Mark? I'm a long-term addict of your joyous blog, now in its fine new minestrone colours.

Signore Writes said...

Macaulay's essay reads like a person who just discovered the effective use of language. Too bad there aren't enough reviewers around today who can use the language so effectively-and cheerfully. I still enjoy Boswell-especially his London Journal - in spite of Macaulay's slashes and cuts. Augustan literature may leave out romantic passion, etc. but it does have a love of language that many contemporary writers seems to despise preferring minimalism instead. I am still trying to give up literary prejudices in order to enjoy versatility and difference.