Boswell's Life of Johnson, 1742
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Edited, from the two-volume Oxford edition of 1904, by Jack Lynch.
In 17421 he wrote for the Gentleman's Magazine
the “Preface,”+ the “Parliamentary Debates,”* “Essay on the
Account of the Conduct of the Duchess of Marlborough,”* then the
popular topick of conversation. This Essay is a short but
masterly performance. We find him in No. 13 of his Rambler,
censuring a profligate sentiment in that “Account:” and again
insisting upon it strenuously in conversation.”2 “An Account of the Life of Peter Burman,”* I
believe chiefly taken from a foreign publication; as, indeed, he
could not himself know much about Burman; “Additions to his Life
of Barretier;"* “The Life of Sydenham,”* afterwards prefixed to
Dr. Swan's edition of his works; “Proposals for printing
Bibliotheca Harleiana, or a Catalogue of the Library of the Earl
of Oxford.”* His account of that celebrated collection of
books, in which he displays the importance to literature, of
what the French call a catalogue raisonne, when the
subjects of it are extensive and various, and it is executed
with ability, cannot fail to impress all his readers with
admiration of his philological attainments. It was afterwards
prefixed to the first volume of the Catalogue, in which the
Latin accounts of books were written by him. He was employed in
this business by Mr. Thomas Osborne the bookseller, who
purchased the library for 13,000l. a sum which Mr. Oldys
says, in one of his manuscripts, was not more than the binding
of the books had cost; yet, as Dr. Johnson assured me, the
slowness of the sale was such, that there was not much gained by
it. It has been confidently related, with many embellishments,
that Johnson one day knocked Osborne down in his shop, with a
folio, and put his foot upon his neck. The simple truth I had
from Johnson himself. “Sir, he was impertinent to me, and I
beat him. But it was not in his shop: it was in my own
A very diligent observer may trace him where we should not
easily suppose him to be found. I have no doubt that he wrote
the little abridgement entitled “Foreign History,” in the
Magazine for December. To prove it, I shall quote the
Introduction. “As this is that season of the year in which
Nature may be said to command a suspension of hostilities, and
which seems intended, by putting a short stop to violence and
slaughter, to afford time for malice to relent, and animosity to
subside; we can scarce expect any other account than of plans,
negociations and treaties, of proposals for peace, and
preparations for war.” As also this passage: “Let those who
despise the capacity of the Swiss, tell us by what wonderful
policy, or by what happy conciliation of interests, it is
brought to pass, that in a body made up of different communities
and different religions, there should be no civil commotions,
though the people are so war-like, that to nominate and raise an
army is the same.”
I am obliged to Mr. Astle for his ready permission to copy the
two following letters, of which the originals are in his
possession. Their contents shew that they were written about
this time, and that Johnson was now engaged in preparing an
historical account of the British Parliament.
“TO MR. CAVE.
“I BELIEVE I am going to write a long letter, and have therefore
taken a whole sheet of paper. The first thing to be written
about is our historical design.
“You mentioned the proposal of printing in numbers, as an
alteration in the scheme, but I believe you mistook, some way or
other, my meaning; I had no other view than that you might
rather print too many of five sheets than of five and thirty.
“With regard to what I shall say on the manner of proceeding, I
would have it understood as wholly indifferent to me, and my
opinion only, not my resolution. Emptoris sit eligere.
“I think the insertion of the exact dates of the most important
events in the margin, or of so many events as may enable the
reader to regulate the order of facts with sufficient exactness,
the proper medium between a journal, which has regard only to
time, and a history which ranges facts according to their
dependence on each other, and postpones or anticipates according
to the convenience of narration. I think the work ought to
partake of the spirit of history, which is contrary to minute
exactness, and of the regularity of a journal, which is
inconsistent with spirit. For this reason, I neither admit
numbers or dates, nor reject them.
“I am of your opinion with regard to placing most of the
resolutions, &c. in the margin, and think we shall give the
most complete account of Parliamentary proceedings that can be
contrived. The naked papers, without an historical treatise
interwoven, require some other book to make them understood. I
will date the succeeding facts with some exactness, but I think
in the margin. You told me on Saturday that I had received money
on this work, and found set down 13l. 2s.
6d. reckoning the half guinea of last Saturday. As you
hinted to me that you had many calls for money, I would not
press you too hard, and therefore shall desire only, as I send
it in, two guineas for a sheet of copy; the rest you may pay me
when it may be more convenient; and even by this sheet payment I
shall, for some time, be very expensive.
“The Life of Savage I am ready to go upon; and in Great Primer,
and Pica notes, I reckon on sending in half a sheet a day; but
the money for that shall likewise lye by in your hands till it
is done. With the debates, shall not I have business enough? if
I had but good pens.
“Towards Mr. Savage's Life what more have you got? I would
willingly have his trial, &c. and know whether his defence
be at Bristol, and would have his collection of Poems, on
account of the Preface; -- “The Plain Dealer,”3
-- all the magazines that have any thing of his or relating to
“I thought my letter would be long, but it is now ended; and I
“The boy found me writing this almost in the dark, when I could
not quite easily read yours.
“I have read the Italian: -- nothing in it is well.
“I had no notion of having anything for the Inscription.4 I hope you don't think I kept it to extort a
price. I could think of nothing, till to-day. If you could spare
me another guinea for the history, I should take it very kindly,
to-night; but if you do not, I shall not think it an injury. --
I am almost well again.”
“TO MR. CAVE.
“YOU did not tell me your determination about the Soldier's
Letter,5 which I am confident was never
printed. I think it will not do by itself, or in any other
place, so well as the Mag. Extraordinary. If you will have it at
all, I believe you do not think I set it high, and I will be
glad if what you give, you will give quickly.
“You need not be in care about something to print, for I have
got the State Trials, and shall extract Layer, Atterbury, and
Macclesfield from them, and shall bring them to you in a
fortnight; after which I will try to get the South Sea
[No date, nor signature.]
I would also ascribe to him an “Essay on the Description of
China, from the French of Du Halde.”+
1. [From one of his letters to a friend,
written in June, 1742, it should seem that he then purposed to
write a play on the subject of Charles the Twelfth, of Sweden,
and to have it ready for the ensuing winter. The passage alluded
to, however, is somewhat ambiguous; and the work which he then
had in contemplation may have been a history of that monarch. --
2. Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, 3rd
edit., p. 167 [Sept. 10, 1773].
3. “The Plain Dealer” was published in 1724,
and contained some account of Savage.
4. [Perhaps the Runick Inscription, Gent. Mag.
vol. xii. p. 132. -- M.]
5. I have not discovered what this was.