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Biography 26.2 (2003) 319-323

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Bruce Redford. Designing the Life of Johnson. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002. 167 pp. + notes. ISBN 0-19-818739-4, $49.95.

The principles that guided James Boswell's shaping of the Life of Johnson are generally well known in broad outline, from the pioneering researches of R. W. Chapman and Marshall Waingrow to essays by Ralph W. Rader, Paul Alkon, and others. Although Boswell's many editorial decisions and revisions are well documented, no one has made full use of the entire Boswellian archive: his complete working manuscript, notes, journals, letters, and proofs. This situation is happily rectified by Bruce Redford's Designing the Life of Johnson. Based on the Lyell Lectures on Bibliography, delivered at Oxford in 2001-2, the present study by Redford represents an invaluable and comprehensive overview of Boswell's biographical procedures and practices. [End Page 319]

Redford confronts head-on the skepticism many readers from the late Donald Greene onward have brought to this topic: why be concerned with a work that is not really a biography at all, they claim, but only a loose assemblage of materials hastily cobbled together? Why be interested in a life that pays little attention to its subject's poetry and moral essays, literary criticism, political thought, or religious convictions? The answer lies largely in how skillfully Redford has used the archive to take us behind the scenes, as it were, of the final version of the Life. He discloses the labyrinthine calculations that went into the production of the first edition; calculations that are only partially concealed by Boswell's modesty, his attempt to shift the focus of our attention from his artistry to his researches. Redford is acutely aware that biography was not an established genre in the late eighteenth century, with its own protocols and procedures, and he gives full credence to the innovative, experimental dimension of Boswell's great enterprise. Not least interesting is evidence that Boswell was attempting to construct a portrait rather than tell a story; the apparent lack of suspense and narrative momentum can be accounted for by the pervasive pictorialism of Boswell's approach, his effort to present an image or succession of images rather than a narrative. The term "biographical portraiture" is apt, for one of Redford's important achievements is his demonstration of how the frontispiece, cameo portraits, and revision of the final Character all affected the manner of Boswell's presentation of Johnson.

The first of five lectures, "Imprinting Johnson," examines the material aspects of the Life: the actual writing, printing, and proofreading. The sheer volume of Boswell's revisions, which continued through two sets of proofs, clearly presented a daunting challenge to those who collaborated with him in bringing the book into existence. Far from being the work of a solitary author,the Life of Johnson was a joint venture from the very beginning. Redford gives full credit to the steadying influence and guidance of Boswell's main advisor, Edmond Malone, as well as to the patience of the printer Henry Baldwin, and the skills of the correctors and compositors: Messrs. Selfe, Plymsell, Manning, and Tomlins. One of the reasons for the success of the enterprise can be found in Boswell's dealings with these men, which Redford describes as "both gracious and demanding" (39). In the latter part of the chapter, Redford turns his attention to an aspect of Boswell's revisions that will preoccupy him throughout the remainder of the lectures: his cancellations and deletions. So many and various are these deletions that a study of the working manuscript in isolation from the Life, Redford almost seems to imply, would give us a very different and perhaps more honest view of Johnson. [End Page 320]

In the second lecture, "Representing Johnson," Redford explores the implications of Boswell's pervasive use of pictorial metaphors, and in particular, his account of theLife as "the Flemish picture which I give of my friend." Drawing upon Joseph Frank's notion of spatial form and Richard Wendorf's transactional theory of portraiture, Redford examines theLifeas...


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