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THE following abridgment has been prepared with the aim of transferring Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson from the reference shelf to the student's hands, of making it for him something more than "a book to browse on," or a mere adjunct to the essays of Macaulay and Carlyle. The third, or less, of the original here presented is, therefore, not a series of hastily culled "selections." Every sacrifice of Boswell's text has been made with the intention of offending as little as possible those who look upon his work as a touchstone. That the "talk" should remain intact, or nearly so, was the first consideration, otherwise that the original proportions should be preserved. Boswell's freedom from the tyranny of the modern paragraph becomes so conspicuous after abridgment that a feeling for consistency stands with sentiment for retaining some of his antiquated spelling, especially those forms that Dr. Johnson himself favored. Nothing, fortunately, in the life of him who "ever discouraged obscenity and impiety" calls for expurgation, and the editor believes that cautious excision has left for the student most of the significant allusions to men, books, and politics of the time as well as to Johnson's friends, household, publishers, and clubs. Through the courtesy of Messrs. Harper and Brothers it has been possible to refer unstintedly to the magnificent work of Dr. George Birbeck Hill. The foreign phrases, though very simple, have been translated; but general remarks on eighteenth century life and manners, such as are now common in other school classics, and information to be found in the dictionary or ready-reference books has been excluded from the notes; for their theme is Johnson.
Those who have found contact with the mind of Dr. Johnson one of the most fascinating of literary experiences eagerly tell us that it is also one of the most educating of human experiences. Piety, filial honor, a passion for discrimination, an unwillingness to compromise on matters of principle, indomitable personal pride coupled with the sweetest generosity, intolerance of sham and "sets of words," -even the bigotry with which to face the bigotry of the latest cry, these things made that singularly impressive unity of mind and character. Who else -to use the words of Sir Joshua Reynolds - can so surely as Dr. Johnson clear one's mind of rubbish and teach one to think justly?
For Boswell, of whom something must be said in an Introduction, the student should read Carlyle's book on Heroes and the correspondence with Temple-if he can find it; but he should be led to see that, as Mr. Mowbray Morris says, "Johnson's attitude to Boswell is at once the best explanation of his character and his worth." Were that attitude borne in mind, there would be less wonder how the " flunky," upon whom far cleverer persons have so grudgingly bestowed their magnanimity, could have written one of the great books of modern days. It but emphasizes the classic truth: Enduring art makes its way by convictions rather than by conciliations. “He would not change his tiger into a cat to please anybody!" How much shrewder, even as a bid for fame, his devotion to one majestic being than the desire to please a host of the second rate! This the lovers of the obvious, of whom Macaulay is the chief, have failed to see. Boswell spared himself even less than he spared his master, and admits the fact with so much sincerity and candor in the Dedication to Sir Joshua Reynolds that one feels ashamed of the easy criticism which could produce: "All the caprices of his temper, all the illusions of his vanity, all the hypochondriac whimsies, all his castles in the air, he displayed with a cool complacency, a perfect unconsciousness that he was making a fool of himself, to which it is impossible to find a parallel in the whole history of mankind." Such an attitude, Edmund Gosse almost too mildly says, indicates "something incomprehensible" in the critic's "capacity." Boswell was not 66 a man of the meanest and feeblest intellect";
he was, no doubt, sensual and vain, but, fond though he was of a "toot on a new horn," never vulgar. His fame he achieved through Johnson, "but the fact," says Gosse,"has been insisted upon until his own genius and peculiarities have been unduly overlooked." Plainly, all recent criticism is disposed to make amends.
Boswell was born on the family estate of Auchinleck in 1740, schooled in Edinborough, prepared for the law in Glasgow. Events of importance subsequent to his meeting with Johnson in 1763 are mentioned in the Life. After Johnson's death he kept a residence in London, maintained a prominent place in the Literary Club, and was made Foreign Secretary of the Royal Academy. He died in London in 1795, and was buried at Auchinleck. His correspondence with Temple was published in 1857, and his Commonplace Book - "Boswelliana" in 1874.