Angela Kelsey

Tell the Story

book 17 of 24 books in 28 days: the life of samuel johnson

Filed in Books, Writing :: February 28, 2010


First, two confessions: if I were making my reading list today, I would not include James Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson.  I would include in its (pre-1900, evolution-of-the-genre) place, say, the work of St. Augustine, Anne Bradstreet, Benvenuto Cellini, Olaudah Equiano, Benjamin Franklin, Margery Kempe, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Mary Rowlandson, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, St. Teresa of Avila, Henry David Thoreau, or Walt Whitman.  And, second confession, I did not read this book cover-to-cover, but only around in, and about, it.

Boswell's Life is widely regarded as a pivotal moment in the development of the genre of biography, and by extension, autobiography and memoir.  But by the time I came to this book, I was doggedly looking for what the memoirists I was reading were telling me about memory and truth and writing process, whether they were telling me overtly or between the lines of their writing.  

When this book begins with Boswell's inclusion of Johnson's schoolboy translations of Latin poetry, I find myself asking  what this tells me, not so much
about Johnson, but about Boswell, the biographer committed to writing
nearly every detail of recorded and remembered conversations he had
with his subject, and referencing every bit of written material he can find.  And 18th-century British Literature is far enough outside my area of expertise that it seems presumptuous of me to even ask.  If there is merit to the question, it is likely that there are articles, dissertations, and books devoted to it already. 

So, instead of real analysis, a bit of trivia and, I hope, food for further thought: Johnson wrote his own memoir of his life, and before he died, he burned all the papers, knowing that Boswell was writing his biography.  In I Could Tell You Stories, Patricia Hampl describes Franz Kafka's deathbed instruction to his friend Max Brod to burn all his papers, knowing that Brod would not do it (and didn't.  Dora Diamant, Kafka's lover, burned what she could, but that's another story–see Hampl).  

If you have notebooks, computer files, journals, half-baked manuscripts, what will be your deathbed instructions to a friend (unless he's writing your complete biography)?

Filed in Books, Writing

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