“There is an imperfection, a superficialness, in all my notions. I understand nothing clearly, nothing to the bottom. I pick up fragments, but never have in my memory a mass of any size. I wonder really if it be possible for me to acquire any one part of knowledge fully.”
The thought returns, but I know better. Some of us ripen early. Others stay green. When young, I possessed a modest gift for impressing teachers and friends with fragments I picked up with my magpie memory. I collected shiny bits but found no use for them them. In effect, they remained bric-a-brac, taking up space and collecting dust. I certainly understood nothing and lacked the confidence to correct the situation. I had no compass. I was a late bloomer.
James Boswell wrote the passage above at age thirty-five in his diary for Dec. 22, 1775 (Boswell: The Ominous Years 1774-1776). At the time, he had known Johnson for twelve years and was already accumulating material for the biography, his life project, the task that may have saved him. He dedicated much time to drinking and whoring. Boswell was an indifferent lawyer, a faithless husband, rousing company and a writer of genius. Writers of the eighteenth century offer hope and encouragement to those of us from unpromising origins who are slow to mature. Johnson’s story in well known. Sterne published the first volumes of Tristram Shandy at age forty-six. Boswell was treated for venereal diseases at least sixteen times and published his great biography at age fifty-one, four years before his death.
A month before his death, during a meeting of The Club (founded in 1764 by Johnson, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Edmund Burke, Oliver Goldsmith, et. al.), Boswell suddenly became ill with fever, severe shaking, a crippling headache and a “disordered” stomach. He suffered from progressive kidney failure, uraemia and decades of reckless living. His brother, T.D. (Thomas David), wrote to their mutual friend William Temple: “My dear brother expired this morning at two o’clock; we have both lost a kind, affectionate friend, and I shall never have such another.” Two days after his death, Edmond Malone, the Shakespeare scholar and friend to Johnson and Boswell, wrote to another of the surviving Johnsonians, William Windham, the Whig politician:
“I suppose you know poor Boswell died on Tuesday morning without any pain. I don’t think he at any time of his illness knew his danger. I shall miss him more and more every day. He was in the constant habit of calling upon me almost daily, and I used to grumble sometimes at his turbulence; but now miss and regret his noise and his hilarity and his perpetual good humour, which had no bounds. Poor fellow, he has somehow stolen away from us without any notice, and without my being at all prepared for it.”
James Boswell died on this date, May 19, in 1795, more than ten years after the death of his great friend and subject.