What are some unusual features of Boswell's Life of Johnson? Would these have been innovative at the time? Is the style of the biography different from that of Boswell's own Journal? (for the Journal, see below)
What don't we know about Dr. Johnson from the Life? Which elements of Johnson's life and character does Boswell deemphasize, and why may this be so?
--early life--relationship with parents; Johnson had differed with his father LJ 284, hadn't visited his mother for years
--pain and rebellion of these early years; Boswell emphasizes Johnson's accomplishments, tells anecdotes indicated others' respect for him, disserts on the value of his writings, esp. his moral essays, 57, 61, 82
--in some respect, Boswell validates himself and his own enterprises through validating Johnson
--doesn't show development, shift in character of his mid- and late years; Johnson is presented as a static figure of wisdom, and man of firm judgment
--Wain suggests that Boswell deemphasizes the charity of Johnson's life (perhaps seemed less memorable), his feeling for poverty, and instead gives prominence to his Tory and religious opinions. Early quotations are almost exclusively on these themes, 111, 113, 116, 121-22, 129, 131, 132
--not able to deal well with Johnson's "low" companions such as Savage, 47, 68-69, Beauclerk, see Johnson's comment, 185. He misstates the financial position of Johnson's wife, 30 (64 admits he loved her)
--Johnson was attracted to several other women after his marriage but was not able to act on these preferences; Boswell can't tell us this.
--Johnson as melancholic--Boswell unable to relate Johnson's nervous difficulties to other aspects of his life. Anecdotes of his compulsive traits are juxtaposed with accounts of his trenchant remarks, without explanation or connection; no sense of how his inner life was influenced by his outer. Boswell felt kindred depressive emotions, but he was no analyst.
--although he doesn't deal well with youth, deals well with old age--one of fullest accounts of an old man in literature, a moving portrayal of increasing weakness and stoicism in the face of death
If the Life of Johnson is not an entire "life of Johnson," what aspect of his life does it portray? (record of intellectual friendship; their differences and even quarrels add a sense of Johnson as a private person, records real debates on small issues, their accords on large ones) Can you think of other great biographies which are also selective and interpretive, and which record a few major relationships? (e. g. Quentin Bell on Woolf)
In what ways does the biography deal with issues of ethics and morality? (a moral book, asks how a person should behave--contemplates human qualities, a book of reflection rather than plot)
Is there a contrast between the first hundred pages and the rest of the biography? Do you see any changes in Johnson between pages 200 and 400?
What role does Boswell serve in this relationship? (chorus, admirer, instigator of topics)
What may have been some reasons which motivated James Boswell to seek out Dr. Johnson? (Boswell manifested a pattern of seeking out older patrons or mentors, and had tried others before Johnson; Johnson was able to approve of actions which his father had viewed harshly and seemed a more supportive father figure; Boswell revered learned men and approved of Johnson’s religious and political views)
What were some of Boswell’s personal traits?
--worried about his own identity, feared instability
--uncertain about whether he could keep his many resolutions
--revered men of philosophy and learning
--given to socializing
--wounded by his father’s disapproval
--anxious about his inability to refute religious skeptics (and Johnson was firmly religious)
--needed someone to understand his personal situation and help him fix his resolve
Are there features of Boswell’s character and beliefs which structure his account of Johnson? What are his biases?
--desire for hero worship (361, 369)
--his religious and political beliefs (emphasizes those of Johnson’s views with which he agrees)
--his own anxieties and defensiveness—projects these on Johnson and defends him at every point
----personal biases appear in his account of Mrs. Thrale (134, 464, 515ff.), Goldsmith (222)
--both flatters (402) and baits him, producing unusual answers
--needs to assert and receive assertions of affection (475)
--it has been suggested that he overemphasizes Johnson's combative and gladiatorial traits? (described as 'every ready for contest," 258)
--Boswell's defensiveness adds drama--Johnson may have felt less need to defend self
What may have been features of Boswell’s character which made him appealing to Johnson?
--Boswell, a wealthy young nobleman, admired him, needed approval
--asked questions which prompted Johnson’s thoughts and conversation; approved of his views
--Johnson liked to exhort, Boswell to be exhorted
--wished company; after a life of indigence had received a 300 pound government pension shortly before meeting Boswell, and for the first time in his life had the leisure for conversation and friendships
What seems the general tenor of his advice to Boswell? 490
What views does Johnson express on the desirability of a monarchy vs. a republic? Would these have been conventional views of the time?
What methods does Boswell use to structure his narrative in order to make Johnson seem more impressive or interesting?
--aggrandizing language (129, my revered friend; his majestic figure)
--cuts off anecdotes with Johnson receiving last word—no other rebuttal or responses permitted, e. g., 410, 122, 151 (on intelligence in animals), 210 (on happiness of Indians), 222 (Goldsmith motivated by envy), 308 (Macaulay), 355 (madness in war)
--denigrates opponents (389-90)
--interpolates defense (320-21)
--cites testimony of others in defense of Johnson’s weakest points
--stages scenes and mischief (e. g., sets up Wilkes encounter, 313-19, Macauley, 356-57)—Johnson sometimes resents this
--disagrees or offers criticisms on side matters, adding verisimilitude (159) and also giving the reader possible grounds for debate, e. g., on Fielding (190) or rebellion in America (239)
--emphasizes the importance of Johnson’s views since they require debate
--Boswell likes both Johnson's combative and tender sides and brings both out, mingled love and severity, 363
How does Boswell present himself? Does he exhibit a sense of humor? (able to tell joke at his own expense, as when Wilkes and Johnson combine against him, 318)
Does he have a motive for his dislike of Mrs. Thrale? (competitiveness)
What are some advantages of the debate or conversational method of presenting a life? Is Boswell’s narration a complete biography in the usual sense? Was his method an innovation in life writing? (pioneered in interview form)
What are some statements by Johnson which he records on the topics of war?
--On politics and government? On monarchy? 113, 121-22, 139, 181-82, 188, 218-19; records his conversation with monarch 147-48; always argues on one side or the other
--on liberty, 158, freedom
--on property, social class
--On promiscuity and marriage?
--on non-European nations? 505
--on women, 126, 152, 215, 224, 231, 236, 256, 259, 289, 310, 325, *389-90
--opposes Negro slavery, 363-64
What are his views on religion and God? The afterlife? 111, 116, 129, 131-32, 137, 311, 395, 496 (these are his most fixed beliefs); religious truth tested by persecution! 217
What are his stated views on biography? 187, 279 Would he have liked the Life of Johnson?
Why do you think he preferred Richardson to Fielding? What was his opinion of Laurence Sterne? (felt his works wouldn't last--he was wrong, of course)
How would you characterize his reading habits?
What do you think of Johnson’s methods of argument? (arguments both sound and specious) What are some of Johnson's techniques for excelling in argument, i. e., why is he a successful gladiator?
--adduces minute particulars
--offers surprising examples 275 (hand cut upon a carrot)
--direct, emphatic address
--shifts topic adroitly
--argues ad hominem 277
Would he have made a good teacher? --perhaps from intensity of his interests (teaches by contradiction and circularity)
--simple derision 131
--uses startling examples (295 head cut on a a carrot; 277 kicking debauchee downstairs)
--defends ad hominem arguments 277-78
--repetition of flat declaratives, 311
--adduces small contraries within large verities, 281, 293, 350
What are some features of Johnson's mind and preoccupations? What are the topics on which he reflects most?
--judges literary talent; enjoys assessing reputations
--firm sense of self, of partisanship
--love of accuracy, love of detail and knowledge, 254
--likes to judge and rank order his contemporaries; gives brief verbal portraits, 299
--sense of sudden happiness at small enjoyments, 281
--combativeness, 247, 255, 258, 278, 281
--unpredictability of his responses creates interest
--melancholia; fear of death develops as an insistent motif, 253, 348; frequency of repetition quickens, 492, 496, 540, 534
Which opinions does he uphold most consistently?
This biography is chronological--is it developmental? If not, why isn't Boswell more interested in charting the growth of Johnson's mind? (A 20th-21st century biography might be more developmental)
Do Johnson's manners change in the last years of his life? Do his political and social views alter at all?
What seems to have been Johnson's chief interests in old age? (conversation and friendship; contemplation of human qualities; reflection, not action)
What effect is created by the comments on Johnson’s appearance, habits, etc.? (132-33, on staircase; his eating habits, 131)
What are the topics on which Johnson reflects most? Does he uphold any opinions consistently?
What are attractive features of Johnson’s mind? Of Boswell’s narration?
--incidents cover broad array of life, situations of human significance
--sense of human distress and courage in Johnson's attitude towards life
--moving vignettes, as of the boy rower who said he wold give all he had to learn of the Argonauts, 124
--sense of happiness in small things--riding in chaise, 281, 350, propagation of trees, 188
--interest in basic processes of life--learning, love of detail, 254--one has the sense that all of human experience and understanding is of interest to Johnson; Boswell comments on his range, 360
--sense of deep emotions--early friendships, 337, sex 290-91, defensiveness, 345
Of Boswell's narration:
--invites reader to debate--can line up on one of several sides; presents severalvalid points of view on human issues, 290-91
What do you think of the balance of Boswell's final peroration? (emphasizes character rather than life; well-judged, no exaggerated encomium)
Does the Life of Johnson achieve a unity in purpose and effect? Has Boswell succeeded in presenting to us the portrait of a consistent, believable person?
What in your opinion are the most essential qualities in a biography?
Page numbers are from the Oxford Standard Authors edition.
London Journal, 1762-63
How does Boswell's style in the Journal differ from that in the Life of Johnson? Are there instances in which he describes the same incidents differently? What features of the Journal are repressed in the Life? (his philosophical effusions, his vanity)
What purposes does Boswell hope the Journal will fulfill in his life?
---will help to form his character, 39-40
--will amuse him by reflecting agreeable scenes (with himself as hero)
Does the journal record an important period of Boswell's life? Does it reflect a natural unity of time?
Are there unusual features of Boswell's self-image and relationship to himself?
--views ideas of self, 104, not agreeable to think of ourselves as nothing
--sees self as an interesting picture, performative: e. g., "I affected resolution"
--likes to view his own whims
--61, speaks of his favorite ideas in best moments
--gives directions to self, as from a super-ego
--enjoys the emotion of constancy, 79
How would you describe Boswell's character, as he presents it?
--essentially cheerful of temper; takes great pleasure in small enjoyments
--on the other hand, complains of his melancholy, 261; notices relation of melancholy to laughter, 258
--stingy with social inferiors
--open about selfish interests
--passive of temperament, 77
--changeable in judgment, 151
What does his response to executions seem to reveal about his character?
Are there any patterns to his sexual habits? (fears impotence, greatly interested in his own sexual performance, 273; finds sex more difficult if he likes his woman partner (perhaps from anxiety?); mentions Louise, Miss Temple
What are his ambitions while in London?
--hopes to make a collection of important friends and experience delicate sensations
--wishes to rise in British social circles
--hopes to be consistent, resolute, important, respected, witty, a writer, a gallant, 123
--wishes to make a favorable impression on others, carefully records what he believes are their responses to him
Is he successful in gaining his personal objectives?
Do you feel he is well treated by the others whom he meets? What seem to be some his method of dealing with others? (most people censor from their speech many of the attitudes he expresses)
In your opinion, are aspects of his character ludicrous, and if so, do you feel this is partially intentional on Boswell's part?
In what ways does Boswell seek to shape his own character? Is he successful in gaining these personal objectives?
What are some of his opinions and social attitudes?
--religious holidays--Easter Day is "that splendid festival," 233
--patriotism, love of display, 53
--literature: What seems to be the extent of his reading and education? (has read Hamlet, 235)
--sex and women, 84, 116, 138, 149
--the lower classes, 100
--the military, 77, 202
--values feeling above reason, 228
Do you agree with Frederick Pottle that Boswell provides us with an objective history of his own mind? I. e., does he have an accurate self image?
Does the Journal have value as a social document? What kinds of data does Boswell record?
Do you see in the Journal signs of the future great biographer?
What are features of the Journal's style? (e. g., short sentences--"We drank tea. We talked of human happiness." 230
Does Boswell manage to interest and amuse his reader despite the repetitiousness of his activities? If so, how? (self-praise adds variety)
How does the journal change with Johnson's entrance? How does he behave toward Johnson? 205
Why do you think they were drawn to one another? Do you agree with Pottle's suggestion that Johnson was a surrogate father? 326 What position does Johnson take in Boswell's quarrel with his father?
How does this journal differ from a diary or autobiography? (like a serial novel--"Episodes in the Life of a Man of Fashion")