“…the usually fulminating Carlyle admits that Boswell’s book about Johnson is a masterpiece in spite of Boswell’s flaws, not because of them. In the end Boswell possessed talent and skill (always a good thing for a writer to have), and he had what Carlyle called the most important virtue: Reverence. In this case reverence for Johnson. We know how gnarled and knotted Carlyle’s prose can be, though, to me, a short excursion into Carlyle land can be invigorating. I actually laughed when I read some of the words and phrases Carlyle uses to describe Boswell, his description having a Shakespearean rowdiness about it, as Hal having a go at Falstaff.”
“Fulminating” is apt. Carlyle could be disproportionately ferocious. Consider this, from a Nov. 2, 1831, entry in his Notebooks:
“Charles Lamb I sincerely believe to be in some considerable degree insane. A more pitiful, ricketty, gasping, staggering, stammering Tom fool I do not know. He is witty by denying truisms, and abjuring good manners. His speech wriggles hither and thither with an incessant painful fluctuation; not an opinion in it or a fact or even a phrase that you can thank him for: more like a convulsion fit than natural systole and diastole. Besides he is now a confirmed shameless drunkard: asks vehemently for gin-and-water in strangers' houses; tipples until he is utterly mad, and is only not thrown out of doors because he is too much despised for taking such trouble with him. Poor Lamb! Poor England where such a despicable abortion is named genius!”
One can hardly imagine two specimens of Homo sapiens less compatible. Carlyle turned sputtering rage into an art form, while Lamb boasted: “Anything awful makes me laugh.” On another occasion, Carlyle referred to Lamb and his sister Mary as “a very sorry pair of phenomena” and characterized Charles’ conversation as “diluted insanity” and the man himself as an “emblem of imbecility bodily and spiritually.” Interesting that Melville acknowledged his fondness for both writers. Of course, Carlyle may have known that Lamb affected to hate Scots, rather in the manner of Dr. Johnson. Three months before his first meeting with Carlyle, in 1821, Lamb had published “Imperfect Sympathies,” later included in Essays of Elia (1823). In it he writes: “I have been trying all my life to like Scotchmen, and am obliged to desist from the experiment in despair.” Elia/Lamb maintains that all the “Caledonians” he has known are what we might call “black-and-white thinkers”:
“Between the affirmative and the negative there is no border-land with him. You cannot hover with him upon the confines of truth, or wander in the maze of a probable argument. He always keeps the path. You cannot make excursions with him--for he sets you right. His taste never fluctuates. His morality never abates. He cannot compromise, or understand middle actions. There can be but a right and a wrong.”
Sound familiar? Lamb could be a shrewd judge of character. But then, so could Carlyle, if the subject was right. Here he is on Boswell, mixing brimstone and honey, but acknowledging his gift as a writer, author of the supreme biography in the language:
“His sneaking sycophancies, his greediness and forwardness, whatever was bestial and earthly in him, are so many blemishes in his Book, which still disturb us in its clearness; wholly hindrances, not helps. Towards Johnson, however, his feeling was not Sycophancy, which is the lowest, but Reverence, which is the highest of human feelings. None but a reverent man (which so unspeakably few are) could have found his way from Boswell's environment to Johnson's: if such worship for real God-made superiors showed itself also as worship for apparent Tailor-made superiors, even as hollow interested mouth-worship for such, the case, in this composite human nature of ours, was not miraculous, the more was the pity! But for ourselves, let every one of us cling to this last article of Faith, and know it as the beginning of all knowledge worth the name: That neither James Boswell's good Book, nor any other good thing, in any time or in any place, was, is, or can be performed by any man in virtue of his badness, but always and solely in spite thereof.”
A wise reminder. Our natures are contradictory. The best among us may produce nothing of worth and some of the worst are touched by genius.