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The author's qualifications.
stance', and from time to time obligingly satisfied my inquiries, by communicating to me the incidents of his early years; as I acquired a facility in recollecting, and was very assiduous in recording, his conversation, of which the extraordinary vigour and vivacity constituted one of the first features of his character; and as I have spared no pains in obtaining materials concerning him, from every quarter where I could discover that they were to be found, and have been favoured with the most liberal communications by his friends; I flatter myself that few biographers have entered upon such a work as this, with more advantages; independent of literary abilities, in which I am not vain enough to compare myself with some great names who have gone before me in this kind of writing.
Since my work was announced, several Lives and Memoirs of Dr. Johnson have been published2, the most voluminous of which
'Mrs. Piozzi records the following conversation with Johnson, which, she says, took place on July 18, 1773. 'And who will be my biographer,' said he, 'do you think?' 'Goldsmith, no doubt,' replied I; 'and he will do it the best among us.' 'The dog would write it best to be sure,' replied he; 'but his particular malice towards me, and general disregard for truth, would make the book useless to all, and injurious to my character.' 'Oh! as to that,' said I, we should all fasten upon him, and force him to do you justice; but the worst is, the Doctor does not know your life; nor can I tell indeed who does, except Dr. Taylor of Ashbourne.' 'Why Taylor,' said he, 'is better acquainted with my heart than any man or woman now alive; and the history of my Oxford exploits lies all between him and Adams; but Dr. James knows my very early days better than he. After my coming to London to drive the world about a little, you must all go to Jack Hawkesworth for anecdotes I lived in great familiarity with him (though I think there was not much affection) from the year
1753 till the time Mr. Thrale and you took me up. I intend, however, to disappoint the rogues, and either make you write the life, with Taylor's intelligence; or, which is better, do it myself after outliving you all. I am now,' added he, 'keeping a diary, in hopes of using it for that purpose some time.' Piozzi's Anec. p. 31. How much of this is true cannot be known. Boswell some time before this conversation had told Johnson that he intended to write his Life, and Johnson had given him many particulars (see post, March 31, 1772, and April 11, 1773). He read moreover in manuscript most of Boswell's Tour to the Hebrides, and from it learnt of his intention. It is no small satisfaction to me to reflect,' Boswell wrote, 'that Dr. Johnson, after being apprised of my intentions, communicated to me, at subsequent periods, many particulars of his life.' Boswell's Hebrides, Oct. 14, 1773.
2 'It may be said the death of Dr. Johnson kept the public mind in agitation beyond all former example. No literary character ever excited so much attention.' Murphy's Johnson, p. 3.
The Life by Sir J. Hawkins.
is one compiled for the booksellers of London, by Sir John Hawkins, Knight', a man, whom, during my long intimacy with Dr. Johnson, I never saw in his company, I think but once, and I am sure not above twice. Johnson might have esteemed him for his decent, religious demeanour, and his knowledge of books and literary history; but from the rigid formality of his manners, it is evident that they never could have lived together with companionable ease and familiarity; nor had Sir John Hawkins that nice perception which was necessary to mark the finer and less obvious parts of Johnson's character. His being appointed one of his executors, gave him an opportunity of taking possession of such fragments of a diary and other papers as were left; of which, before delivering them up to the residuary legatee, whose property they were, he endeavoured to extract the substance. In this he has not been very successful, as I have found
The greatest part of this book was written while Sir John Hawkins was alive; and I avow, that one object of my strictures was to make him feel some compunction for his illiberal treatment of Dr. Johnson. Since his decease, I have suppressed several of my remarks upon his work. But though I would not 'war with the dead' offensively, I think it necessary to be strenuous in defence of my illustrious friend, which I cannot be without strong animadversions upon a writer who has greatly injured him. Let me add, that though I doubt I should not have been very prompt to gratify Sir John Hawkins with any compliment in his life-time, I do now frankly acknowledge, that, in my opinion, his volume, however inadequate and improper as a life of Dr. Johnson, and however discredited by unpardonable inaccuracies in other respects, contains a collection of curious anecdotes and observations, which few men but its author could have brought together. BOSWELL.
⚫ 'The next name that was started was that of Sir John Hawkins; and Mrs. Thrale said, "Why now, Dr.
Johnson, he is another of those whom you suffer nobody to abuse but yourself: Garrick is one too; for, if any other person speaks against him, you brow-beat him in a minute." "Why madam," answered he, "they don't know when to abuse him, and when to praise him; I will allow no man to speak ill of David that he does not deserve; and as to Sir John, why really I believe him to be an honest man at the bottom; but to be sure he is penurious, and he is mean, and it must be owned he has a degree of brutality, and a tendency to savageness, that cannot easily be defended. . . . He said that Sir John and he once belonged to the same club, but that as he eat no supper, after the first night of his admission he desired to be excused paying his share. "And was he excused?" "O yes; for no man is angry at another for being inferior to himself. We all scorned him, and admitted his plea. For my part, I was such a fool as to pay my share for wine, though I never tasted any. But Sir John was a most unclubable man." Madame D'Arblay's Diary, i. 65.
Warburton's view of biography.
upon a perusal of those papers, which have been since transferred to me. Sir John Hawkins's ponderous labours, I must acknowledge, exhibit a farrago, of which a considerable portion is not devoid of entertainment to the lovers of literary gossiping; but besides its being swelled out with long unnecessary extracts from various works (even one of several leaves from Osborne's Harleian Catalogue, and those not compiled by Johnson, but by Oldys), a very small part of it relates to the person who is the subject of the book; and, in that, there is such an inaccuracy in the statement of facts, as in so solemn an authour is hardly excusable, and certainly makes his narrative very unsatisfactory. But what is still worse, there is throughout the whole of it a dark uncharitable cast, by which the most unfavourable construction is put upon almost every circumstance in the character and conduct of my illustrious friend'; who, I trust, will, by a true and fair delineation, be vindicated both from the injurious misrepresentations of this authour, and from the slighter aspersions of a lady who once lived in great intimacy with him.
There is, in the British Museum, a letter from Bishop Warburton to Dr. Birch, on the subject of biography; which, though I am aware it may expose me to a charge of artfully raising the value of my own work, by contrasting it with that of which I
'In censuring Mr. [sic]J. Hawkins's book I say: "There is throughout
the whole of it a dark, uncharitable cast, which puts the most unfavourable construction on my illustrious friend's conduct." Malone maintains cast will not do; he will have "malignancy." Is that not too strong? How would "disposition" do? . . . Hawkins is no doubt very malevolent. Observe how he talks of me as quite unknown? Letters of Boswell, p. 281. Malone wrote of Hawkins as follows: The bishop [Bishop Percy of Dromore] concurred with every other person I have heard speak of Hawkins, in saying that he was a most detestable fellow. He was the son of a carpenter, and set out in life in the very lowest line of the law. Dyer knew him well at one time, and
the Bishop heard him give a character of Hawkins once that painted him in the blackest colours; though Dyer was by no means apt to deal in such portraits. Dyer said he was a man of the most mischievous, uncharitable, and malignant disposition. Sir Joshua Reynolds observed to me that Hawkins, though he assumed great outward sanctity, was not only mean and grovelling in disposition, but absolutely dishonest. He never lived in any real intimacy with Dr. Johnson, who never opened his heart to him, or had in fact any accurate knowledge of his character.' Prior's Malone, pp. 425-7. See post, Feb. 1764, note.
2 Mrs. Piozzi. See post, under June 30, 1784.
The author's mode of procedure.
have spoken, is so well conceived and expressed, that I cannot refrain from here inserting it :
'I shall endeavour, (says Dr. Warburton,) to give you what satisfaction I can in any thing you want to be satisfied in any subject of Milton, and am extremely glad you intend to write his life. Almost all the life-writers we have had before Toland and Desmaiseaux', are indeed strange insipid creatures; and yet I had rather read the worst of them, than be obliged to go through with this of Milton's, or the other's life of Boileau, where there is such a dull, heavy succession of long quotations of disinteresting passages, that it makes their method quite nauscous. But the verbose, tasteless Frenchman seems to lay it down as a principle, that every life must be a book, and what's worse, it proves a book without a life; for what do we know of Boileau, after all his tedious stuff? You are the only one, (and I speak it without a compliment) that by the vigour of your stile and sentiments, and the real importance of your materials, have the art, (which one would imagine no one could have missed,) of adding agreements to the most agreeable subject in the world, which is literary history?.'
'Nov. 24, 1737-'
Instead of melting down my materials into one mass, and constantly speaking in my own person, by which I might have appeared to have more merit in the execution of the work, I have resolved to adopt and enlarge upon the excellent plan of Mr. Mason, in his Memoirs of Gray3. Wherever narrative is necessary to explain, connect, and supply, I furnish it to the best of my abilities; but in the chronological series of Johnson's life, which I trace as distinctly as I can, year by year, I produce, wherever it is in my power, his own minutes, letters or conversation, being convinced that this mode is more lively, and will make my readers better acquainted with him, than even most of those were who actually knew him, but could know him only partially; whereas there is here an accumulation of intelligence
'Voltaire in his account of Bayle says: 'Des Maizeaux a écrit sa vie en un gros volume; elle ne devait pas contenir six pages.' Voltaire's Werks, edition of 1819, xvii. 47.
'Brit. Mus. 4320, Ayscough's Catal, Sloane MSS. BOSWELL.Horace Walpole describes Birch as a worthy, good-natured soul, full of industry and activity, and running
about like a young setting-dog in quest of anything, new or old, and with no parts, taste, or judgment.' Walpole's Letters, vii. 326. See post, Sept. 1743.
3 You have fixed the method of biography, and whoever will write a life well must imitate you.' Horace Walpole to Mason; Walpole's Letters, vi. 211.
Not a panegyrick, but a Life.
from various points, by which his character is more fully understood and illustrated'.
Indeed I cannot conceive a more perfect mode of writing any man's life, than not only relating all the most important events of it in their order, but interweaving what he privately wrote, and said, and thought; by which mankind are enabled as it were to see him live, and to 'live o'er each scene'' with him, as he actually advanced through the several stages of his life. Had his other friends been as diligent and ardent as I was, he might have been almost entirely preserved. As it is, I will venture to say that he will be seen in this work more completely than any man who has ever yet lived3.
And he will be seen as he really was; for I profess to write, not his panegyrick, which must be all praise, but his Life; which, great and good as he was, must not be supposed to be entirely perfect. To be as he was, is indeed subject of panegyrick enough to any man in this state of being; but in every picture there should be shade as well as light, and when I delineate him without reserve, I do what he himself recommended, both by his precept and his example1.
'If the biographer writes from personal knowledge, and makes haste to gratify the publick curiosity, there is danger lest his interest, his fear, his gratitude, or his tenderness overpower his fidelity, and tempt him to conceal, if not to invent. There are many who think it an act of
Malone's note of March 15, 1781, and
Boswell tells me,' she writes, "he is printing anecdotes of Johnson, not his Life, but, as he has the vanity to call it, his pyramid. I besought his tenderness for our virtuous and most revered departed friend, and begged he would mitigate some of his asperities. He said roughly: "He would not cut off his claws, nor make a tiger a cat, to please anybody." It will, I doubt not, be a very amusing book, but, I hope, not an indiscreet one; he has great enthusiasm and some fire.' H. More's Memoirs, i. 403.