Tuesday, May 19, 2020

'We Talked of Wind'

“We dined at the chop-house. Dr. Pozz was this day very instructive. We talked of books. I mentioned the History of Tommy Trip. I said it was a great work. Pozz: ‘Yes, sir, it is a great work; but, sir, it is a great work relatively; it was a great work to you when you was a little boy: but now, sir, you are a great man, and Tommy Trip is a little boy.’”

Seasoned readers will recognize the conversational rhythms, reliance on “sir” and Pozz’s gentle putdown of his companion, Bozz. Boswell’s Life of Johnson had been published May 16, 1791 in two quarto volumes, in an edition of 1,750 copies. The lengthy parody, titled “Lessons in Biography or How to Write theLife of One’s Friend,” was published anonymously in the Morning Herald less than two months later, on July 5. The author was later revealed to be the writer and editor Alexander Chalmers. Like Boswell, he was a Scot, and thus the target of such Johnsonian barbs as “What enemy would invade Scotland, where there is nothing to be got?” The parody was later collected in Johnsoniana: Or, Supplement to Boswell: Being Anecdotes and Sayings of Dr. Samuel Johnson (ed. John Wilson Croker, 1836).

For a parody to work it must be accurate in the details. Chalmers nicely captures Boswell’s style, occasionally exaggerating it for effect: “Next day I left town, and was absent for six weeks, three days, and seven hours, as I find by a memorandum in my journal.” During his absence, Pozz’s companion, Bozz, says he received only one letter from his great friend: “Dear Sir,--My bowels have been very bad. Pray buy me some Turkey rhubarb with a copy of your ‘Tour.’” To which “Boswell” replies: “It would have been unpardonable to have omitted a letter like this, in which we see so much of his great and illuminated mind.”

It’s rare for a parody to outlive its time and remain genuinely amusing. Chalmers succeeds throughout most of his Boswellian/Johnsonian spoof:

“We talked of wind. I said I knew many persons much distressed with that complaint. Pozz: ‘Yes, sir, when confined, when pent up.’ I said I did not know that, but I questioned if the Romans ever knew that. Pozz: ‘Yes, sir, the Romans knew it.’ Bozz: ‘Livy does not mention it.’ Pozz: ‘No, sir, Livy wrote History. Livy was not writing the Life of a Friend.’”
For many of us, the Life is the desert-island book. Its only rivals are Shakespeare and the King James Bible. It can take any amount of ribbing and ill will, clever or otherwise. Boswell, of course, can be absurdly obsequious, and Johnson knew he was being played. A bestseller in its own day, the Life remains read, at least in sections, more often than anything written by Johnson (a reality that would have surprised both men, and that their admirers have no choice but to accept). Three days before its publication, forty-one London booksellers bought four-hundred copies. One of them sold twenty copies on the first day. Eight hundred of the first printing sold within two weeks. George III praised the book, calling it “the most entertaining book he had ever read,” according to Edmund Burke. By December, all but three-hundred copies had been sold.
Boswell died on this date, May 19, in 1795, four years, two days and seven hours after he published his masterpiece.

1 comment:

Richard Zuelch said...

For me, the last real edition of the "Life" is the 6th, edited by Edmund Malone and published in 1811, a year or two before Malone's death. Malone, as you know, had known both Johnson and Boswell personally, so his input as editor was especially valuable. The next edition, by Croker, published after Malone's death by a man who had not known Johnson or Boswell was. . .well, let's just say that readers and critics have not been kind to it.