A Life of James Boswell

Peter Martin, Author
Peter Martin, Author Yale University Press $35 (624p) ISBN 978-0-300-08489-4
Reviewed on: 09/04/2000
Release date: 09/01/2000
Paperback - 636 pages - 978-0-300-09312-4
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Martin quotes his multi-flawed (but here, warmly limned) hero as confessing, smugly, at 23, ""I am one of the most engaging men that ever lived."" Despite such confidence, Boswell (1740-1798), author of the first modern biography, A Life of Dr. Samuel Johnson LL.D., was also tormented by bouts of black despair about his private and professional failings. He was never able to earn the respect of his rigid father, a Scot lawyer and laird, and never (despite marrying a paragon of a woman) able to satisfy his alcoholic or his sexual appetites, which left him almost always suffering from, or recovering from, drunkenness or gonorrhea. His two published journals on Corsica and the Hebrides, and his life of Johnson, have since been supplemented by 14 volumes of long-hidden journals and seven volumes of letters, and Martin, a professor of English at Principia College in Illinois, has had the good fortune of access to Yale's as-yet unpublished resources. The result (which Martin first published in England last year) is also the reader's good fortuneDa racy, readable and authoritative biography that sympathetically but unapologetically dramatizes what drove Boswell, almost in spite of himself, to produce some of the best writing in English. Writing his Life of Johnson, Boswell told himself, ""I draw him in the style of a Flemish painter. I am not satisfied with hitting the large features. I must be exact as to every hair...."" In Martin's pages, the reader lives at Boswell's elbowDimpatient at his failures, delighting in his successes (""I just sat and hugged myself in my own mind,"" Boswell once wrote). 12 pages b&w illus. (Nov. 15)
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