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IT were superfluous to expatiate on the merits, at least as a source of amusement, of Boswell's LIFE OF JOHNSON. Whatever doubts may have existed as to the prudence or the propriety of the original publication-however naturally private confidence was alarmed, or individual vanity offended, the voices of criticism and complaint were soon drowned in the general applause. And no wonder-the work combines within itself, the four most entertaining classes of writing-biography, memoirs, familiar letters, and that assemblage of literary anecdotes which the French have taught us to distinguish by the termination Ana.
It was originally received with an eagerness and relished with a zest which undoubtedly were sharpened by the curiosity which the unexpected publication of the words and deeds of so many persons still living could not but excite. But this motive has gradually become weaker, and may now be said to be extinct; yet we do not find that the popularity of the work, though somewhat changed in quality, is really diminished; and as the interval which separates us from the actual time and scene
increases, so appear to increase the interest and delight which we feel at being introduced, as it were, into that distinguished society of which Dr. Johnson formed the centre, and of which his biographer is the historian.
But though every year thus adds something to the interest and instruction which this work affords, something is, on the other hand, deducted from the amusement which it gives, by the gradual obscurity that time throws over the persons and incidents of private life: many circumstances known to all the world when Mr. Boswell wrote are already obscure to the best informed, and wholly forgotten by the rest of mankind 1.
For instance, when he relates (vol. i. p. 196.) that a "great personage" called the English Divines of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries "Giants," we guess that George III. was the great personage; but all the editor's inquiries (and some of His Majesty's illustrious family have condescended to permit these inquiries to extend even to them) have failed to ascertain to what person or on what occasion that happy expression was used.
Again: When Mr. Boswell's capricious delicacy induced him to suppress names and to substitute such descriptions as "an eminent friend," "a young gen
1 "Dr. Johnson talked with approbation of an intended edition of the Spectator, with notes. He observed that all works which describe manners require notes in sixty or seventy years or less." Post, v. ii. p. 200. And Dean Swift wrote to Pope on the subject of the Dunciad, "I could wish the notes to be very large in what relates to the persons concerned; for I have long observed, that twenty miles from London nobody understands hints, initial letters, or town facts or passages, and in a few years not even those who live in London." Lett. 16, July, 1728.-ED.
tleman," "a distinguished orator," these were well understood by the society of the day; but it is become necessary to apprize the reader of our times, that Mr. Burke, Mr. Sheridan, and Mr. Fox, were respectively meant. Nor is it always easy to appropriate Mr. Boswell's circumlocutory designations. It will be seen in the course of this work, that several of them have become so obscure that even the surviving members of the Johnsonian society are unable to recollect who were meant, and it was on one of these occasions that Sir James Mackintosh told the editor that "his work had, at least, not come too soon."
Mr. Boswell's delicacy is termed capricious, because he is on some occasions candid even to indiscretion, and on others unaccountably mysterious. In the report of a conversation he will clearly designate half the interlocutors, while the other half, without any apparent reason, he casts into studied obscurity.
Considering himself to be (as he certainly has been to a greater degree than he could have contemplated) one of the distributors of fame, he has sometimes indulged his partialities or prejudices1 by throwing more
1 Mr. Boswell confesses that he has sometimes been influenced by the subsequent conduct of persons in exhibiting or suppressing Dr. Johnson's unfavourable opinion of them.-See the cases of Lord Monboddo, v. ii. p. 75, and of Mr. Sheridan, v. ii. p. 88; and it is to be feared he has sometimes done so without confessing, perhaps without being conscious of the prejudice. On the other hand, he is sometimes more amiably guilty of extenuation, as in the instances of Doctors Robertson and Beattie, v. ii. p. 30, 54, 187, and 225.
It is not easy to explain why Mr. Boswell was unfavourably disposed towards Sheridan and Goldsmith, though the bias is obvious; but wholly unaccountable are the frequent ridicule and censure which he delighted to provoke and to record against his inoffensive and amiable friend Mr. Langton.
Those who knew Mr. Boswell intimately inform us (as indeed he himself involuntarily does) that his vanity was very sensitive, and there can be no doubt that personal pique tinged many passages of his book, which, whenever the editor could trace it, he has not failed to notice.-ED.