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Boswell's Presumptuous Task: The Making of the Life of Dr. Johnson

by Adam Sisman

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I picked up this book primarily out of an interest in the late 18th century and for that it was a valuable read. Better than some authors and historians, this book delivers an idea of the forces and complexities of 18th-century life, through the perspective of James Boswell, the author of the seminal biography The Life of Dr. Johnson. Had I been more familiar with Samuel Johnson or the biography previously, I likely would have gotten more out of this book. Still, I enjoyed learning about both Johnson and Boswell, their relationship, and Boswell's effort to produce the definitive biography of his mentor. ( )
  wagner.sarah35 | Oct 14, 2017 |
A perfect choice of a title by Adam Sisman!

In his Introductory Chapter of The Life of Samuel Johnson, James Boswell wrote:
"To write the Life of him who excelled all mankind in writing the lives of others, and who, whether we consider his extraordinary endowments or his various works, has been equalled by few in any age, is an arduous, and may be reckoned in me a presumptuous task."

I'm surprised that Boswell didn't spell the word "him" with a capital "H."

Indeed, In his dictionary, Samuel Johnson defines presumptuous as
1. Arrogant; confident; insolent;
2. Irreverent with respect to holy things

In his dictionary, Johnson defines the word Arduous as:
1. Lofty; hard to climb
2. Difficult

Boswell certainly had lofty expectations, especially since everyone else had already written their lives of Johnson. In his LOJ, Boswell shows some of Johnson's warts, but never enough to knock him off his pedestal. In his quasi-biography of Boswell, Sisman bares all, depicting Boswell at times as a drunken sot who may well have set the all-time record for contracting Gonorrhea. Sisman shows that Boswell made the task of writing Johnson's biography more difficult because of his drinking, and because of his desire to make a name for himself in other ventures, either as a lawyer or hopefully, as an appointed politician. But a brilliant writer Boswell was, and Sisman shows that as well, although Sisman credits Malone's editing with putting the icing on the cake. Malone had nothing to do with the second edition, and Sisman says that edition contains errors, which Malone corrected in the third edition after Boswell's death.
All in all, a good scholarly and pleasant read. Moi recommends. ( )
1 vote moibibliomaniac | Jun 28, 2011 |
I'm not crazy about this book.
  anncdean | Oct 5, 2008 |
It is not necessary to have read Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson to appreciate Adam Sisman's book. He provides plenty of context and detail for readers who are less familiar with the literary and historical figures in eighteenth century England. In fact, though I read the Life of Johnson first, I would recommend doing it the other way round and starting with Sisman's narrative. Particularly interesting is the posterity section which charts the popularity and reputation of the Life (and its author) through the past two hundred years. ( )
1 vote literarysarah | Dec 18, 2007 |
4308 Boswell's Presumptuous Task The Making of the Life of Dr. Johnson, by Adam Sisman (read 2 May 2007) (National Book Critics Circle biography award for 2001) I read Boswell's Life of Johnson Sept 9, 1979, mostly because I thought one should read the most famous biography ever written, but not with a great enthusiasm. Then on Aug 16, 2006, I read W. Jackson Bate's eminently readable 1977 biography of Johnson with considerable appreciation. This prize-winning book by Sisman is amazingly interesting. It tells how James Boswell set himself out to write the biography and the book is much about Boswell, who was not a morally admirable person, nor very prudent, drinking far more than he should. After Johnson died in 1784 Boswell set out to write the biography. It was finally published on May 16, 1791. The book was a success and Boswell made money (which he much needed). This is a good book, but I suspect I have read enough about Samuel Johnson, on whose birthday I was born some years later than Johnson's natal day in 1709.. ( )
  Schmerguls | May 2, 2007 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0142001759, Paperback)

Adam Sisman's task is almost as "presumptuous" as the one he anatomizes with such precision and grace in his text. He has attempted a biography of a biography--and not just any biography, but the most famous one in the English language. From its publication in 1791, James Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson has been acclaimed (and reviled) as the first truly modern biography, a book that reveals its subject with unprecedented intimacy, faults and all. The 20th-century discoveries of quantities of manuscripts, including Boswell's extremely frank journals, sparked greater interest in the man once dismissed as a mere recorder of Johnson's pithy conversation, but now shown to be an ambitious writer in his own right. More to the point for Sisman, these documents made it possible to scrutinize in detail the writing of The Life of Samuel Johnson. "Why did he want so much to write about Johnson, and why did he persist in the face of so much adversity?" asks Sisman. "How did he set about his task? Did his ideas change as his writing progressed? How did he evaluate the varied and sometimes contradictory material he gathered?" These questions are still relevant to biographers today, and Sisman addresses them with sensitivity and acuity. He begins by cogently sketching the unlikely friendship begun in 1763 between a renowned 53-year-old London man of letters and a naive 22-year-old Scotsman, then moves on to examine in depth the seven years after Johnson's death during which Boswell battled depression, bouts of heavy drinking, and venereal disease to shape masses of material into a book "that stands next to other biographies as Shakespeare stands beside other playwrights: towering above them all." The result is a thoughtful and revealing analysis of the creative process by which biography, as much as fiction, is shaped. --Wendy Smith

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:23:39 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

James Boswell's The life of Samuel Johnson is the most celebrated of all biographies, acknowledged as one of the greatest and most entertaining books in the English language. Yet Boswell himself has generally been considered little more than an idiot and condemned by posterity as a lecher and drunk. How could such a fool have written such a book? With great wit, Adam Sisman here tells the story of Boswell's presumptuous task-the making of the greatest biography of all time. Sisman traces the friendship between Boswell and Samuel Johnson, his great mentor, and provides a fascinating account of Boswell's seven-year struggle to write The life of Samuel Johnson.… (more)

» see all 2 descriptions

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