James Boswell died a disappointed man, considered by his contemporaries to be a "foolish failure". Yet today his "Life of Johnson" is esteemed as the template for modern biography and Boswell himself is regarded as a formidable, if somewhat anti-heroic intellect in his own right. Sisman provides not only an account of Boswell's life but a creative ...
James Boswell died a disappointed man, considered by his contemporaries to be a "foolish failure". Yet today his "Life of Johnson" is esteemed as the template for modern biography and Boswell himself is regarded as a formidable, if somewhat anti-heroic intellect in his own right. Sisman provides not only an account of Boswell's life but a creative investigation into how Boswell managed to be simultaneously so risible and outstanding and, by extension, an investigation into the nature of biographers and biography. Making use of Boswell's letters and journals (only recently uncovered and unhindered by the constraints of academia), Sisman's book depicts Boswell and the 18th-century world he lived in with clarity and frankness.
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Publishers Weekly, 2001-06-11 Aged 45, health waning from alcoholism, beaten to the press by rivals quick to exploit the death of literary icon Samuel Johnson in 1784, James Boswell finally began his ambitious biography two years later, in June 1786. For 21 years Boswell had been the acolyte of the creator of the great Dictionary and author of the influential Lives of the Poets. Boswell reconstructed his subject's life largely from his own proximity and other people's memories and documents. But, as Sisman points out, only the first fifth of the biography covers the 53 years of Johnson's life before master and pupil met. From that point on, the biographer is a major character in his own book. Evidently, as Sisman shows in analyzing the relationship of the two very different men, Johnson realized that he spoke for posterity each time he talked to the adoring Boswell, and that every particularity of his slovenly dress and gross behavior would be recorded. Indeed, Johnson comes alive in those and other minute details. Sisman (A.J.P. Taylor: A Life) focuses on the seven years late in Boswell's career when he finally disciplined himself to write the early masterpiece of biography. Even so, much of the credit, according to Sisman, is due not to the bibulous, prostitute-chasing Boswell, who often abandoned his tubercular, dying wife as well as his book, but to Shakespeare scholar Edmund Malone, Boswell's devoted friend. Malone kept the faltering biographer on task and despite failing eyesight painstakingly revised the ever-lengthening manuscript. When Malone was unavailable, the project languished. "I go sluggishly and comfortless about my work," Boswell confesses. "As I pass your door I cast many a longing look." While the pathos of Boswell's life lingers, Sisman's study will appeal largely to Boswell and Johnson aficionados. (Aug.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
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