THE POTTLE-BRADY biography of Boswell is now complete. McGraw-Hill is reissuing Pottle's 1966 volume on the earlier years (1740-1769) to accompany Brady's account of the later years (1769-1795). Brady's volume began as a collaborative venture, but it ended as, essentially, his work, though the spirit of Pottle is seldom far from center stage. Brady's narrative treats the birth of Boswell's children and the death of his father, his wife, and his spiritual father, Johnson; Boswell's election to the Club, his publication of the Hypochondriack, the Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, and the Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.,is defense of the sheep-stealer John Reid, his tour of the Highlands and Hebrides with Johnson, and his call to the English bar.
Brady faces his task with a number of problems. In the first place the material is largely known to his readers, who are familiar not only with Boswell's own journal accounts of his experience but familiar as well with such materials as Johnson's Journey and letters. In other words, this is not the unfolding of a tale crafted from hitherto unknown materials replete with surprises and unexpected revelations. On the contrary, it is the structuring of a body of experience which was revealed years ago in what many consider the major literary find of the century.
The second problem is even more imposing, namely, the fact that much of Boswell's experience during his later years is the continuing record of his bouts with wine, women, and whist, all of which he indulged to a degree that is both pathetic and tedious. When he was able to control himself and focus upon his work, there is little relief for his biographer, for his work consists of legal causes which are generally (to my taste, at least) so dull as to make the most routine labor in the army, the academy, or a federal agency look like the day-to-day life of Indiana Jones. The sad thing is that Boswell's interest in that work is not much greater than mine.
TO BE FAITHFUL to Boswell's experience, Brady must also resist the temptation to subordinate the account of his actual life to his experience with Johnson or his experience in writing Johnson's life. His time with Johnson was quite brief and the writing of Johnson's life was only one of many activities in which he was involved. Fortunately, James Boswell: The Later Years is just that; it is not "Boswell's life with Johnson" or "Boswell's escape to the world of literature." For that, Brady is to be praised. Though he would probably reject the compliment, his account of Boswell's experience, as history, is closer to the ideal than Boswell's account of Johnson's.
It is also very readable. Brady's prose is lucid, witty, and at times as salty as his form and task will permit. Moreover, the book is rich in character and incident. Seeing a snowfall, Boswell commented, "I like that appearance. Nature is like a man with fine linen well washed and his wig well powdered." Brady comments that "as he always was quick to admit, Boswell hardly saw the landscape at all. It was a tract of space to be crossed between human habitations." Having crossed it in Brady's biography, we spend a great deal of time in the company of such individuals as Sir James Low Earl of Lonsdale, the richest commoner in England, a man who cared so much for the daughter of one of his tenant farmers that he kept her remains in a glass-lidded coffin so that he could look upon her beauty even in death.
Brady's principal challenge, however, is Boswell himself. While many biographers focus upon heroic accomplishments, Brady must focus upon a pattern of great, but limited, talent which is combined with weakness, suffering, and self-destruction. While there are touches of the agony of the romantic in Boswell, Brady chooses instead to stress, in good 18th-century fashion, the universality of his experience. Here, in short, is a man who wishes to be somewhere else, to do something else, and to be recognized. Without great stimuli his life is a vacuum and his moods swing to and fro so quickly that most would be utterly overwhelmed by the desolation which those feelings occasion. He is unhappy in his work and in his distance from London. He seeks parental approval from, psychologically, a diametric opposite. He loves his children but prefers the literary company of adults. He is bitterly frustrated and driven to compulsive behavior as those who have been his supports in the past die and vanish. Since all of us have experienced these sorts of frustrations to some degree, Boswell stands as a sad but powerful model of what it means, in part, to be human.
This Brady portrays eloquently and convincingly. He asks us to love the sinner and regret rather than hate the sin. His Boswell is simply and sympathetically explained without being oversimplified or apotheosized. Brady can write that "immediate enjoyment remained the driving impulse of (Boswell's) life no matter what he destroyed in reaching for it" and yet still salvage a considerable portion of his reader's respect for his subject.