Sunday, May 16, 2010

`Look, My Lord, It Comes'

A reader in Texas reminds us:

“On May 16, 1763 Samuel Johnson and James Boswell first met at Thomas Davies's bookshop in London.”

Boswell recounts the meeting like this:

“At last, on Monday the 16th of May, when I was sitting in Mr. Davies's back-parlour, after having drunk tea with him and Mrs. Davies, Johnson unexpectedly came into the shop; and Mr. Davies having perceived him through the glass-door in the room in which we were sitting, advancing towards us, -- he announced his awful approach to me, somewhat in the manner of an actor in the part of Horatio, when he addresses Hamlet on the appearance of his father's ghost, `Look, my Lord, it comes.’”

Boswell was twenty-two; Johnson, fifty-three. W. Jackson Bate describes the young Scot and future biographer as “romantically imaginative, sexually promiscuous, impulsively idealistic and open-natured, pliable, and with an impressionable genius for mimicry.” He was also dissolute, pox-plagued and given to drunkenness. According to Bate, Boswell was searching for a father-figure and found one of genius. In his journal he admonished himself to “be Johnson.”

Without their meeting and friendship, what would remain of Boswell? Little except what social historians of 18th-century England might squirrel away in footnotes. Without Boswell, what would we have of Johnson? The work might stand, the life less so, which in turn would diminish the currency of the work. Today, thanks in part to Boswell, we prize even Johnson’s most topical journalism. Without Boswell’s great Life, we might consign Johnson to mere literary history rather than the moral history of humanity. Together, thanks to Boswell’s “presumptuous task,” this unlikely pair, fatherless son and sonless father, befriended, sustained and immortalized each other.

G.K. Chesterton sometimes dressed as Johnson and lectured in his persona (a photo of Chesterton in wig and tricorn is reproduced in Michael Ffinch’s G.K. Chesteron: A Biography). Self-revealingly, Chesterton writes of Johnson:

“He may seem to be hammering at the brain through long nights of noise and thunder; but he can walk into the heart without knocking.”

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