For James Boswell, admiration was a busy, intimate affair. Although he was enormously vain, he was a stranger to embarrassment, and this unusual mix often seems to have been his greatest strength. Boswell wanted to be more than a mere biographer: he wanted to imprint his own personality on the life he planned to write, even as that life was being lived.
Boswell had the highest reverence for Johnson. He spent three years fishing for an introduction and when they finally met he was gratified to be treated with a proper brusqueness. Boswell felt ‘no little elation at having now so happily established an acquaintance of which I had been so long ambitious,’ and–when it began to seem that Johnson liked him–’a pleasing elevation of mind beyond what I had ever before experienced.’ This is the stock language of the seasoned hero-hunter. Boswell was addicted to the famous: Rousseau and Voltaire were two of his prize scalps, and he was forever writing letters to celebrities in order to connect their names with his. Like many another hero-worshipper, Boswell believed that his own gifts and temperament were nearer to the heroic than to those of the mediocre mass: he deserved to be close to Johnson–more than an incompetent sycophant like Oliver Goldsmith did, for instance. By keeping Johnson’s flame he would also be attending to his own. And from this point of view, he has been thoroughly triumphant. The Dr Johnson of the popular imagination is indeed Johnson as first imagined by James Boswell: Ursa Major, the Great Cham, the auld dominie and all the rest of it have been drawn directly from theLife. The verb ‘to Boswellize’ now has a meaning in the language.
Every so often, efforts are made to liberate Johnson from the ardent custody of his disciple, to insist that Johnson was a writer, not a chop-house aphorist, that he had an inner life to which Boswell had no access and would not have understood. And, it is also pointed out, the Life of Johnson is not really a full Life at all. Boswell came late upon the scene and his attachment lasted for just over twenty of his subject’s seventy-five years. The book runs to about fourteen hundred pages: of these, under three hundred cover life-before-Boswell.