Friday, May 26, 2017

`This Object of My Rage'

The earliest recorded use of “Boswell” as an eponym dates from 1858, when Oliver Wendell Holmes in The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table declares in a very American spirit: “Every man his own Boswell.” The next usage, according to the OED, is likewise Holmesian: “‘I think that I had better go, Holmes.’ ‘Not a bit, Doctor. Stay where you are. I am lost without my Boswell.’” (“A Scandal in Bohemia,” 1892) Finally, Nancy Mitford, Evelyn Waugh’s chum, writes in her 1932 novel Christmas Pudding: “I never thought of biography, but of course that’s the very thing for me . . . May I be your Boswell, darling?” More recently, and not cited by the OED, Stanley Elkin titled his first novel Boswell: A Modern Comedy (1964).

In most of these allusions (the Elkin is ambiguous) “Boswell” is neutral or admiring. It suggests a devoted chronicler, a gifted amanuensis. The OED also has entries for Boswellian and Boswellism. The latter is the work of Thomas Macaulay, whose famous pan of Croker’s edition of Boswell’s Life of Johnson appeared in 1831. It’s not intended kindly: “That propensity which, for want of a better name, we will venture to christen Boswellism.” Macaulay was just getting warmed up:

“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. He was, if we are to give any credit to his own account or to the united testimony of all who knew him, a man of the meanest and feeblest intellect. Johnson described him as a fellow who had missed his only chance of immortality by not having been alive when the Dunciad was written. [Topham] Beauclerk used his name as a proverbial expression for a bore. He was the laughing-stock of the whole of that brilliant society which has owed to him the greater part of its fame.”

Macaulay’s Boswell is a freak of nature, an idiot savant of biography. Macaulay had a little-known precursor who also judged Boswell a literary parasite. Her name was Elizabeth Moody (1737-1814) and she was a minor English poet and critic. Among her poems is “Dr. Johnson’s Ghost,” published in 1786, two years after Johnson’s death, five years before Boswell’s Life of Johnson was published. The poem is occasioned by the publication in 1785 of Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D., which Moody deems a purely mercenary act of self-aggrandizement on Boswell’s part. She has Johnson’s ghost say to Boswell:

“`Behold,’ he cried, ` perfidious man,
This object of my rage:
Bethink thee of the sordid plan
That formed this venal page.

“`Was it to make this base record
That you my friendship sought;
Thus to retain each vagrant word,
Each undigested thought?’”

The eighteenth century was a bruising, unforgiving time to be a writer. Reviews of various sorts – written, spoken, hurled – were often gleefully savage. The ghost accuses Boswell of perfidy, avariciousness and rapaciousness – a felony indictment in Moody’s reckoning. In the final line, in a Poe-esque pre-echo, Boswell is condemned to a future in which he “wrote never more.” Boswell had his everlasting revenge in 1791.

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