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October 29, 2002

Adam Sisman on Boswell, success, and the next book

Although "writers on writing" is a popular theme for articles, lectures, and conferences, the writers in question are nearly always talking about themselves or the topic of writing in great abstraction. While interesting, such discussions tend to be carefully guarded and, more often than not, unavailing. What's more, the interpretation of literature seems to place almost no emphasis on the author's purpose and process in writing the book. In the reading of fiction, such disregard for background information can be justified by theoretical conceits about the death of the author and the mystical disappearance of texts from classrooms. In nonfiction, such information is overlooked because it supposedly reveals nothing. Given what's on the page in a work of nonfiction, it doesn't appear as though authorial intent has any relevance to the facts we're presented. An accurate account, on this line of thinking, is not something that requires the talents of a literary stylist. Unconsciously, I'd wager a good many of us think this way, and it's a shame, really, since many classic works of nonfiction only begin to blossom when we consider what those articles, lectures, and conferences concern—namely, the writer as he writes.

Adam Sisman's Boswell's Presumptuous Task makes just such an argument about the appreciation of Boswell's Life of Johnson. When he passed through Chicago in October, I had a chance to talk with Sisman about Boswell and the writing of the Life of Johnson. Friendly and engaging, Sisman knows his subject well and enjoys discussing it. Boswell is that rare case of a biographer about whom people have had an awful lot to say, often to Boswell's detriment. The Victorian critics, for instance, dismissed Boswell as a fool and praised Johnson as the real genius behind the Life of Johnson. "Boswell presented himself so openly…he makes himself appear so ridiculous," Sisman explained. "Because his behavior was the sort of behavior [Victorians] disapproved of, they took him at his word and failed to see what a literary master and what a master craftsman he was. They opted for this notion that he was just a fool who wrote a great book." This was a slight that was only corrected after Boswell's journals and letters revealed how much of his own talents had been put to use in creating a complete picture of Johnson. "People woke up to the fact that he was a great writer, perhaps even a greater writer than Johnson."

What made Boswell such a great writer, and consequently made the Life of Johnson such a great book, was the vibrant presentation of its subject. Sisman remarked that Boswell was "trying to show the whole of Johnson…It's almost as if he was trying to resurrect Johnson. For this reason, he not only showed Johnson as a great man, and involved in important events, but he also showed what he called 'minute particulars' about Johnson's eating habits, about his shabby clothes, about the way he wore his hair, about the way he peeled oranges, about the way he balanced on a two-legged stool." This level of detail was of more than mere anecdotal interest, however. "These tiny details…built up an amazing character, who is better known than any character in human history. It's important to see that Johnson as a fictional character, as the creation of an artist. He's based on the real Johnson, but he's not the real Johnson. The real Johnson is always there somewhere in the background."

Indeed, as many reviewers of Boswell's Presumptuous Task noted, what makes Samuel Johnson accessible to a modern audience is not anything about his prodigious works but the picture of him as one of history's great wits presented in his definitive biography. "The thing about Johnson is that he is regarded as greater than any of his individual works," Sisman said. "Johnson remains a colossal figure really because of his character. On the front cover of my copy back home of the Cambridge Companion to English Literature, there's one face on the front cover in an oval, and it's not Shakespeare, it's not Dickens, it's Johnson." That, Sisman concluded, was as great a testament as any to the legacy of Samuel Johnson.

The process through which Boswell managed to write such a great book is the center of Boswell's Presumptuous Task. The Life of Johnson is an interesting topic for analysis because its inner workings—the presence of the author in the life of his subject—are so clearly visible. As Sisman wrote in his own book, "It's like watching a play when you can see the stage-hands, the actors waiting to come on, and indeed the playwright scribbling in the wings." While Sisman decided at the outset that a book about Boswell the biographer would differ from a book about Boswell the man, understanding Boswell—particularly the many distractions he fought through when writing the book—did involve taking a larger look at his life. "It's important to remember that Boswell was living another life. He was living in the world, he was a lawyer, and he had an estate to run after the death of his father, he was a husband and father. He wanted to cut a figure in the world. His literary ambitions have to be viewed in the context of all of this. His literary ambition was just one of several ambitions."

Sisman has made something of a career out of understanding writers. He began his career as a publisher, and his first book, a biography of British historian A.J.P. Taylor, appeared in 1994. It was the writing of that book that kindled his interest in Boswell. "I'd never thought seriously about biography and the sort of problems biographers face and the moral decisions they must make…I grew interested in biography as a subject, and that naturally drew me toward the great biography, which is Boswell's Life of Johnson. I thought, 'there's a book in there somewhere.'"

Writing that book presented its own set of challenges. "The first challenge was to find a form. Various people have commented that this was a different kind of biography, one that hadn't been attempted before." The difficulty in finding a form was apparently aggravated by features of the Life of Johnson itself. "There's so many different layers and these layers interact. As Boswell's writing about Johnson he's also writing about himself. And talking to Johnson about the biography, and going off to research the biography." "In the end," Sisman added, "I decided that the sensible thing to do was to tell a story."

As Sisman discovered, simply telling this story took a great deal of time and research, and Sisman's struggle to write his own book enhanced his understanding of Boswell. "Of course, I empathized with Boswell in that I had my own distractions. Not on the level of Boswell, but all writers find it difficult to write—or at least they should find it difficult to write—and I am no exception."

The success of Boswell's Presumptuous Task—it won the National Book Critic's Circle Award and appeared on several best-seller lists—came as a bit of a surprise to Sisman. "I think every author dreams of winning awards and writing popular books, and I am no exception from anyone else in that," he said. "But I was surprised, and of course delighted" by the success of the book. "What I'm most delighted about is getting letters from people in America who are not Johnson specialists…and who say to me, 'after reading your fascinating book I was inspired to go out and read Boswell's Life of Johnson,' and there can really be no greater flattery than for that to be the case."

Sisman's work on writers, writing, and literary friendship continues with his next book, which concerns the friendship between William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge. It's a project that differs from the project on Boswell and Johnson. Where Boswell and Johnson's friendship seems to have worked for the lasting benefit of both men, Coleridge and Wordsworth were friends whose relationship deteriorated into a rivalry for fame, women, and posterity. Understanding their work seems to involve the same considerations involved in understanding the Life of Johnson, namely, going beyond the texts themselves to consider the lives and thought of the people behind them. It's an idea Adam Sisman seems to be finally giving its due.