Keeping Boswell in repair

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  • Post published:September 15, 2014
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“Keeping Boswell in Constant Repair” is the title of Gordon Turnbull’s 2014 Fleeman Memorial Lecture. He explains:

The popularity of Boswell’s Life of Johnson somehow manages to survive the assaults, many of them fully justified, on its adequacy as a comprehensive or veridical rendering of the real or historical Johnson, especially of Johnson the author.

This paper argues that argument over the validity of the depiction was precisely Boswell’s point, and that the generation of a copious and revisionist Johnsonian biographical and critical industry is the successful outcome of his deeper agenda.

Beneath Boswell’s vaunting claims for the authoritative authenticity of his depiction lie deeper hesitancies, and his decision to bequeath to posterity the diaries, the letters he solicited and from which he culled selectively, and his other working papers, precisely allows and indeed foments an interrogatory scrutiny of what he chose to publish in 1791.

What Boswell offered is a complex contribution to that at which the Boswellian version of Johnson himself excelled: conversation, deliberately provocative, at once combative and consolatory.