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First Edition, February 1906 Reprinted, July 1906; November 1907
RICHARD CLAY & SONS, LIMITED,
PUBLISHED for the first time in 1791, seven years after Dr. Johnson's death, Boswell's Life, as he reminds us in his Advertisement to the second edition, found appreciative critics at the outset. "Let me mention," he says, with a warm, but no insolent exultation, "that I have been regaled with spontaneous praise of my work by many and various persons eminent for their rank, learning, talents, and accomplishments; much of which praise I have under their hands to be reposited in my archives at Auchinleck." But Boswell's best critic and reviewer was not to appear for another forty-one years, when he arrived in the person of Thomas Carlyle. One of the weightiest accounts ever given indeed by one author of another's book was that of Carlyle, written upon Boswell's Johnson, It was originally contributed, a mighty review almost as long as some modern novels, to Fraser's Magazine in 1832, the special occasion being the issue of Wilson-Croker's edition of 1831. Carlyle resumed the subject and repeated the argument of his essay afterwards in his book on "Heroes." Here are reprinted some passages of the Fraser article, which defend, yet unsparingly characterize, the ineffable author of the best biography in the language, and which form an introduction to its pages, invigorating and vivifying to a degree. The whole essay, it is needless to say, though it is a huge improvisation, disproportionate in parts and much distended by Carlyle's moral monologues, is, as a piece of original criticism, all but unique in literature. Croker's edition of 1831 was in five volumes and cost three pounds. There must have been at least fifty editions since then; and the present, which costs thirty times less, goes a step further than any other in carrying on the great transition which Carlyle pointed to as beginning in Johnson's day, and by which literature passed "from the protection of Patrons into that of the Public."
"C "Boswell," said Carlyle, was a person whose mean or bad qualities lay open to the general eye, visible, palpable to the dullest. His good qualities, again, belonged not to the Time he
lived in; were far from common then; indeed, in such a degree, were almost unexampled; not recognisable therefore by every one; nay, apt, even (so strange had they grown) to be confounded with the very vices they lay contiguous to, and had sprung out of. That he was a wine-bibber and gross liver; gluttonously fond of whatever would yield him a little solacement, were it only of a stomachic character, is undeniable enough. That he was vain, heedless, a babbler; had much of the sycophant, alternating with the braggadocio, curiously spiced too with an all-pervading dash of the coxcomb; that he gloried much when the Tailor, by a court-suit, had made a new man of him; that he appeared at the Shakespeare Jubilee with a riband, imprinted 'CORSICA BOSWELL,' round his hat; and in short, if you will, lived no day of his life without doing and saying more than one pretentious ineptitude; all this unhappily is evident as the sun at noon. The very look of Boswell seems to have signified so much. In that cocked nose, cocked partly in triumph over his weaker fellow-creatures, partly to snuff-up the smell of coming pleasure and scent it from afar; in those bagcheeks, hanging like half-filled wine-skins, still able to contain more; in that coarsely-protruded shelf-mouth, that fat dewlapped chin; in all this, who sees not sensuality, pretension, boisterous imbecility enough; much that could not have been ornamental in the temper of a great man's overfed great man (what the Scotch name flunky), though it had been more natural there? The under part of Boswell's face is of a low, almost brutish character.
"Unfortunately, on the other hand, what great and genuine good lay in him was nowise so self-evident. That Boswell was a hunter after spiritual Notabilities, that he loved such, and longed, and even crept and crawled to be near them; that he first (in old Touchwood Auchinleck's phraseology) 'took on with Paoli;' and then being off with 'the Corsican landlouper,' took on with a schoolmaster, 'ane that keeped a schule, and ca'd it an academy :' that he did all this, and could not help doing it, we account a very singular merit. The man, once for all, had an 'open sense,' an open loving heart, which so few have: where Excellence existed, he was compelled to acknowledge it; was drawn towards it, and (let the old sulphurbrand of a Laird say what he liked) could not but walk with it,-if not as superior, if not as equal, then as inferior and lackey, better so than not at all. If we reflect now that this love of Excellence had not only such an evil nature to triumph over; but also what an education and social position withstood it and weighed it down, its innate strength, victorious over all these things, may astonish us.