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By John Wilson, Managing Editor
STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND
Indeed, I cannot conceive a more perfect mode of writing any man's life, than not only relating all the most important events of it in their order, but interweaving what he privately wrote, and said, and thought; by which mankind are enabled as it were to see him live, and to 'live o'er each scene' with him, as he actually advanced through the several stages of his life. Had his other friends been as diligent and ardent as I was, he might have been almost entirely preserved. As it is, I will venture to say that he will be seen in this work more completely than any man who has ever yet lived.
--James Boswell, "The Life of Samuel Johnson"
"The Life of Samuel Johnson," the great prototype of modern biography, was published on May 16, 1791, the anniversary of the day in 1763 on which James Boswell first met Doctor Johnson in the parlor of Thomas Davies, an actor who kept a bookshop in Covent Garden.
Apart from his irrepressible boastfulness--in this case, not unjustified--Boswell's remarks about his life of Johnson reveal a naIvete characteristic of the Enlightenment. "Had his other friends been as diligent and ardent as I was," Boswell says of Johnson, "he might have been almost entirely preserved"--a strange turn of phrase, the strangeness of which Boswell doesn't perceive. So we are to imagine a relay-team of biographers attending the great man from birth, recording not only what he did--"all the most important events . . . in their order"--but also "interweaving what he privately wrote, and said, and thought." And there you have it: a virtual Doctor Johnson.
In "Whose Emily Dickinson?" (in this issue), Roger Lundin tells how he began work on a biography of Dickinson with a comparably naive notion of what it would entail, and how in the course of that project he gained a new sense of the irreducible mystery at the heart of every human life. (Along the way, he also became much more charitable in his judgments of fellow biographers.)
If excessive confidence in the power of ...