“Pacing the streets of town he looked both ways,
For pleasure, and for fame; compiled with care
A chronicle of this divided gaze,
“Needing to view his own reflection there
To reassure him that he balanced well
Upon the tightrope stretching high and bare.”
The subject is James Boswell, the second and best of Dr. Johnson’s biographers, in a poem, “On the Publication of Boswell’s Journal” (A Word Carved on a Sill, 1956), by a later (1974) Johnson biographer, John Wain. Caches of Boswell’s papers were discovered in Ireland in the nineteen-twenties and -thirties. The first of twelve volumes drawn from this material, Boswell's London Journal, 1762–1763, was published by Yale University in 1950.
“And so however many times he fell
His candour caught him in his bouncy net,
And truthfulness became a magic spell.
“Attentive to the task his nature set,
He chose his prey by instinct, whore or sage;
It was not time to take decisions yet.”
Those unburdened with a complicated understanding of human nature will dismiss Boswell as little more than a diseased, whoring drunk. The London Journal and its “racy” contents proved an unexpected bestseller not for literary but salacious reasons. Scholars have documented Boswell’s sexual relations, between the ages of twenty and twenty-nine, with more than seventy women, at least sixty of whom were prostitutes. He was treated for gonorrhea at least nineteen times. Wain is shrewd about Boswell’s cunning: “He chose his prey by instinct, whore or sage.” The sage is Johnson, whom he idolized.
“So, timidly, he mustered, page by page
His bodyguard, and safe among the crowd
Bequeathed his problems to a later age.
“Till in the era of the mushroom cloud
They, having slumbered through the days of calm,
Jumped out and shouted to be read aloud,
“Flooding the wise with justified alarm.
Surely such frank admissions of defeat
From one so thickly smeared with wisdom’s balm
“Would make it harder still to be discreet:
For how could they still pose as their own masters
When forced to pore on each accusing sheet,
“And underline, in red, their own disasters?”
Thomas Macaulay famously scorned Boswell as “servile and impertinent, shallow and pedantic, a bigot and a sot,” and wrote, more damningly: “Of the talents which ordinarily raise men to eminence as writers, Boswell had absolutely none.” Macaulay was an early specimen of what Joseph Epstein has called a "virtucrat." He was blind to Boswell’s true virtues, though elsewhere in the review already quoted he almost sees the light: “That such a man should have written one of the best books in the world is strange enough. But this is not all. Many persons who have conducted themselves foolishly in active life, and whose conversation has indicated no superior powers of mind, have left us valuable works.”
Wain accepts and thus understands Boswell. He isn’t eager to damn him, nor does he disingenuously ignore his faults. In 1966, Wain reviews Frederick A. Pottle’s James Boswell: The Earlier Years, 1740-1769 and lays out a mature, common sense portrait of the man and the artist:
“Boswell’s [Life of Johnson] has the excitement, the continuous play of life, of a first-rate novel. It is constructed around a tension of opposites. Boswell brings himself into the story as the anti-Johnsonian hero, the man with none of the Johnsonian qualities. He appears to have done this partly by instinct, and would perhaps have been puzzled if any contemporary reader of the book had pointed it out. But it was the infallible instinct of the artist. Macaulay’s caricature of Boswell as the fool who blundered into writing a great book is only a vulgarized picture of the mental processes of any artist.”