Book: Boswell's Presumptuous Task

Cover image

Boswell's Presumptuous Task: The Making of the Life of Dr. Johnson

Author: Adam Sisman
Publisher: Farrar Straus Giroux

A heroic, brilliantly detailed portrait of the biographer as artist.

James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson is the most celebrated of all biographies, acknowledged as one of the greatest and most entertaining books in the English language. Yet Boswell himself was regarded by his contemporaries as a man of no judgment and condemned by posterity as a lecher and a drunk. How could such a fool have written such a book?

Boswell’s “presumptuous task” was his biography of Johnson. Adam Sisman traces the friendship between Boswell and his great mentor, one of the most unlikely pairings in literature, and provides a fascinating and original account of Boswell’s seven-year struggle to write the Life following Johnson’s death in 1784. At the time, Boswell was trying—and failing—to make his mark in the world: desperate for money; debilitated by drink; torn between his duties at home and the lure of London; tormented by rival biographers; often embarrassed, humiliated and depressed. Boswell’s Presumptuous Task shows movingly how a man who failed in almost everything else produced a masterpiece.


Adam Sisman’s task is almost as “presumptuous” as the one he anatomizes with such precision and grace in his text. He has attempted a biography of a biography—and not just any biography, but the most famous one in the English language. From its publication in 1791, James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson has been acclaimed (and reviled) as the first truly modern biography, a book that reveals its subject with unprecedented intimacy, faults and all. The 20th-century discoveries of quantities of manuscripts, including Boswell’s extremely frank journals, sparked greater interest in the man once dismissed as a mere recorder of Johnson’s pithy conversation, but now shown to be an ambitious writer in his own right. More to the point for Sisman, these documents made it possible to scrutinize in detail the writing of The Life of Samuel Johnson. “Why did he want so much to write about Johnson, and why did he persist in the face of so much adversity?” asks Sisman. “How did he set about his task? Did his ideas change as his writing progressed? How did he evaluate the varied and sometimes contradictory material he gathered?” These questions are still relevant to biographers today, and Sisman addresses them with sensitivity and acuity. He begins by cogently sketching the unlikely friendship begun in 1763 between a renowned 53-year-old London man of letters and a naive 22-year-old Scotsman, then moves on to examine in depth the seven years after Johnson’s death during which Boswell battled depression, bouts of heavy drinking, and venereal disease to shape masses of material into a book “that stands next to other biographies as Shakespeare stands beside other playwrights: towering above them all.” The result is a thoughtful and revealing analysis of the creative process by which biography, as much as fiction, is shaped. —Wendy Smith

Views: 556 • Modified: • Elapsed: 0.026 sec