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Joshua's portraits; and above all in the skill, truth, brilliance, and life-like spontaneity of Boswell's art. It is in such works as these that we shall find the real Johnson, and through them that he will exert the force of his personality upon us.
Biography is the literature of realized personality, of life as it has been lived, of actual achievements or shortcomings, of success or failure; it is not imaginary and embellished, not what might be or might have been, not reduced to prescribed or artificial forms, but it is the unvarnished story of that which was delightful, disappointing, possible, or impossible, in a life spent in this world.
In this sense it is peculiarly the literature of truth and authenticity. Elements of imagination and speculation must enter into all other forms of literature, and as purely creative forms they may rank superior to biography; but in each case it will be found that their authenticity, their right to our attention and credence, ultimately rests upon the biographical element which is basic in them, that is, upon what they have derived by observation and experience from a human life seriously lived. Biography contains this element in its purity. For this reason it is more authentic than other kinds of literature, and more relevant. The thing that most concerns me, the individual, whether I will or no, is the management of myself in this world. The fundamental and essential conditions of life are the same in any age, however the adventitious circumstances may change. The beginning and the end are the same, the average length the same, the problems and the prize the same. How, then, have others managed, both those who failed and those who succeeded, or those, in far greatest number, who did both ? Let me know their ambitions, their odds, their handicaps, obstacles, weaknesses, and struggles, how they finally fared, and what they had to say about it. Let me know a great
variety of such instances that I may mark their disagreements, but more especially their agreement about it. How
did they play the game? How did they fight the fight that ✓ I am to fight, and how in any case did they lose or win?
To these questions biography gives the direct answer. Such is its importance over other literature. For such reasons, doubtless, Johnson ‘loved it most. For such reasons the book which has been most cherished and revered for wellnigh two thousand years is a biography.
Biography, then, is the chief text-book in the art of living, and pre-eminent in its kind is the Life of Johnson. Here is the instance of a man who was born into a life stripped of all ornament and artificiality. His equipment in mind and stature was Olympian, but the odds against him were proportionate to his powers. Without fear or complaint, without boast or noise, he fairly joined issue with the world and overcame it. He scorned circumstance, and laid bare the unvarying realities of the contest. He was ever the sworn enemy of speciousness, of nonsense, of idle and insincere speculation, of the mind that does not take seriously the duty of making itself up, of neglect in the gravest consideration of life. He insisted upon the rights and dignity of the individual man, and at the same time upon the vital necessity to him of reverence and submission, and no man ever more beautifully illustrated their interdependence, and their exquisite combination in a noble nature.
Boswell's Johnson is consistently and primarily the life of one man. Incidentally it is more, for through it one is carried from his own present limitations into a spacious and genial world. The reader there meets a vast number of people, men, women, children, nay even animals, from George the Third down to the cat Hodge. By the author's magic each is alive, and the reader mingles with them as with his acquaintances. It is a varied world, and includes the smoky and swarming courts and highways of London, its stately drawing-rooms, its cheerful inns, its shops and markets, and beyond is the highroad which we travel in lumbering coach or speeding postchaise to venerable Oxford with its polite and leisurely dons, or to the staunch little cathedral city of Lichfield, welcoming back its famous son to dinner and tea, or to the seat of a country squire, or ducal castle, or village tavern, or the grim but hospitable feudal life of the Hebrides. And wherever we go with Johnson there is the lively traffic in ideas, lending vitality and significance to everything about him.
A part of education and culture is the extension of one's narrow range of living to include wider possibilities or actualities, such as may be gathered from other fields of thought, other times, other men; in short, to use a Johnsonian phrase, it is ‘multiplicity of consciousness. There is no book more effective through long familiarity to such extension and such multiplication than Boswell's Life of Johnson. It adds a new world to one's own, it increases one's acquaintance among people who think, it gives intimate companionship with a great and friendly man.
The Life of Johnson is not a book on first acquaintance to be read through from the first page to the end. "No, Sir, do you read books through ?' asked Johnson. His
is probably the best one of undertaking this book. Open at random, read here and there, forward and back, wholly according to inclination; follow the practice of Johnson and all good readers, of 'tearing the heart' out of it. In this way you most readily come within the reach of its charm and power. Then, not content with a part, seek the unabridged whole, and grow into the infinite possibilities of it.
But the supreme end of education, we are told, is expert discernment in all things—the power to tell the good from the bad, the genuine from the counterfeit, and to prefer the good and the genuine to the bad and the counterfeit. This is the supreme end of the talk of Socrates, and it is
the supreme end of the talk of Johnson. 'My dear friend,' said he, clear your mind of cant; ... don't think foolishly.' The effect of long companionship with Boswell's Johnson is just this. As Sir Joshua said, 'it brushes away the rubbish'; it clears the mind of cant; it instills the habit of singling out the essential thing; it imparts discernment. Thus, through his friendship with Boswell, Johnson will realize his wish, still to be teaching as the years increase.