You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Anatomy of Melancholy

For James Boswell, the original literary groupie, meeting Samuel Johnson was on a par with seeing the ghost of Hamlet’s father. He had read Johnson’s essays in The Rambler with such “delight and instruction” that his idea of the man who wrote them “had grown up in my fancy into a kind of mysterious veneration.” Boswell would read the essays out loud, performing them for himself. “Johnson writes like a teacher. He dictates to his readers as from the academic chair. They attend with awe.” But new biographers of Johnson seem less awed by him, the shaper of men, than by his disciple. Johnson’s moralizing has become quaint. As professional biographers, it is Boswell with whom they compare themselves, and so it is Boswell who must be brought low. After all, who still uses Johnson’s dictionary now, or learns his poems?

Seven or eight years ago I went into Johnson’s house in Gough Square with a group of Yale students. The first question one of them asked the guide was “What did Samuel Johnson do?” None of them knew. They were taking a summer course in historic preservation, and they had questions to ask about paint colors. So I am less surprised than Peter Martin that “from spot interviews in the high streets of several English towns that only about a quarter of the people I spoke to could identify him. Some wondered if he was a boxer.” From this Martin deduced that to mark Johnson’s three hundredth anniversary a new biography must be in order, and never mind the dozens of them that remain in print.

Eleven years ago, Martin wrote a biography of Boswell, in which he wrote that Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson “is still regarded as one of the greatest biographies ever written—many say, the greatest.” It was a judgment he did not then dispute, and he quoted Carlyle, approvingly, on how “Boswell has given more pleasure than any other man of this time, and perhaps, two or three excepted, has done the world greater service.” Now that Martin has written his own biography of Johnson, the praise is hushed. Boswell has become a rival. “There are problems with Boswell’s biography,” Martin remarks on page one. He is right, of course. Boswell’s dates aren’t beyond correction: confusing records led him to exaggerate the amount of time Johnson spent at Oxford, for example. But mainly Boswell’s practices offend twenty-first-century rules about biography-making. He altered some quotations to make them wittier, more “Johnsonian.” Where there were gaps in Johnson’s history—periods for which Boswell lacked material—he would fill them with stories properly belonging to other years, rearranging his facts like a bald man anxiously combing over his few strands of hair.

But Martin offers a unique reason for why Boswell’s Life needed a rewrite: “Boswell did not want his portrait to be of a man wracked with self-doubt, guilt, fear and depression.… Neither did he explore the manifestations of his subject’s melancholia even though an assortment of fears connected to that ‘vile melancholy’ afflicted Johnson’s entire life and deeply shaped much of his thought and behavior.” Martin is not wrong about the intensity of Johnson’s despair, but his representation of Boswell’s Life is so inexact as to border on disingenuous. “What philosophic heroism was it in him to appear with such manly fortitude to the world, while he was inwardly so distressed!” Boswell observed. “The mysterious principle of being ‘made perfect through suffering’ was to be strongly exemplified in him.” Boswell did not suppress or disguise his friend’s depression—he reveled in it.

Boswell speculates that Johnson inherited his father’s melancholy, and writes about moments when Johnson would feel so “languid and inefficient that he could not distinguish the hour upon the town-clock”:

While he was at Lichfield in the college vacation of the year 1729, he felt himself overwhelmed with an horrible hypochondria, with perpetual irritation, fretfulness and impatience; and with a dejection, gloom, and despair, which made existence misery. From this dreadful malady he never afterwards was perfectly relieved; and all his labors, and all his enjoyments, were but temporary interruptions of its baleful influence.

The depression never goes away:

His mind resembled the vast amphitheatre, the Coliseum at Rome. In the centre stood his judgment, which like a mighty gladiator, combated those apprehensions that, like the wild beasts of the Arena, were all around in cells, ready to be let out upon him. After a conflict, he drives them back into their dens; but not killing them, they were still assailing him.

Boswell’s Johnson is never in good health. He is half-blind, nearly deaf, disfigured by scrofula, plagued by asthma and bronchitis, later gout. He is in pain, he suffers, and to Boswell this makes his achievements all the more extraordinary. “To Johnson, whose supreme enjoyment was the exercise of his reason, the disturbance or obscuration of that faculty was the evil most to be dreaded.” Boswell was no stranger to depression himself, and he repeated the advice Johnson gave him: “Do not, however, hope wholly to reason away your troubles; do not feed them with your attention.…Fix your thoughts upon your business, fill your intervals with company, and sunshine will again break in upon your mind.” And again: “Against melancholy he recommended constant occupation of mind.” Boswell’s Johnson is a man whose unceasing energy for conversation and for work is the consequence of his despair: he is always on the run from his own thoughts.

If Martin provides a more trenchant analysis of Johnson’s melancholia in his book, I missed it. Actually, there is little psychological interest at all to be found in Martin’s book. What he does provide is a serviceable summary of Johnson’s life with helpful glosses on those aspects of eighteenth-century British history for which Boswell’s first readers required no explanation. And though Martin rarely adds anything to the well-known sources, he does possess a dubious ability for turning chapter endings into cliff-hangers. (On Johnson completing the Dictionary: “Was he back where he started three years earlier? Was this just another failure?” Presumably not.)

Jeffrey Meyers has also written a new life of Johnson, and he begins his book by announcing it as an improvement on Boswell’s Life, since Boswell “felt obliged to draw a discreet veil” around aspects of Johnson’s life that if known would “detract from his friend’s prestige and dignity.” Here is Meyers:

But the chaste widower was certainly thinking of himself when…he was asked to name the greatest pleasure in life. Instead of mentioning religious devotion or intellectual conversation, convivial company, foreign travel or literary fame, Johnson said that the first pleasure was “fucking & the second was drinking. And therefore he wondered why there were not more drunkards, for all could drink tho’ all could not fuck.”

Has anyone ever claimed that Johnson did not care for sex or the sauce? Certainly not Boswell, whose Johnson decides that man is happiest “never, but when drunk.” And Johnson’s strong words against chastity, recorded by Boswell, are just as revealing as anything Meyers thinks he has uncovered. But after his firebrand introduction, Meyers seems to drop his complaint against previous biographers, and provides what is largely a re-hashing of old work by W. Jackson Bate (still Johnson’s most scrupulous biographer) and James Clifford.

The exception is in his treatment of Hester Thrale, who along with her husband provided Johnson with friendship and protection, rooms in their houses, and company when he was agitated. Meyers combines an essay by Katharine Balderston, which creatively read Hester’s letters, with Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis to state, unequivocally, that Johnson and Hester must have had a sadomasochistic sexual relationship: he imagines Johnson “chained up and on his knees, kissing her feet and becoming her ‘slave.’”

Boswell writes of Johnson’s near-constant feelings of shame and sorrow, his religious guilt, his desire for correction: punishment and pleasure were well entwined. But the only evidence that Johnson acted on masochistic fantasies is a letter he wrote to Thrale, referring to “that bondage which you know so well how to render agreeable.” Whether that bondage is real or figurative no one claims to know, except for Jeffrey Meyers. (For his part, Peter Martin decides that “Balderston’s suggestion that Johnson may have taken a perverse sexual pleasure in such confinement has been discredited.”) Meyers decides that a one-line entry in Johnson’s diary, “de pedicis et manicis insana cogitatio”— “mad thoughts of fetters and handcuffs”—must refer to actual fetters and actual handcuffs, with no mention that Johnson frequently used those words metaphorically: “the strong fetters of the law,” “the shackles of circumstance.”

And yet. We do know from Boswell that when Johnson’s melancholia was so intense that it could not be distinguished from madness, he sought relief in physical pain:

A madman loves to be with people whom he fears.…They are eager for gratifications to soothe their minds, and divert their attention from the misery which they suffer: but when they grow very ill, pleasure is too weak for them, and they seek for pain. Employment, Sir, and hardships, prevent melancholy.

If this is masochism, its object is not pleasure, but relief from a more intense kind of suffering.

Boswell was not Johnson’s first biographer, or among the first several. Unlike Meyers, who has written, say his publishers, forty-three books, everyone supposed Boswell to be a failure as he missed deadline after deadline. “What labor, what perplexity, what vexation I have endured in arranging a prodigious multiplicity of materials, in supplying omissions, in searching for papers, buried in different masses.” When the book was published, friends, upset about how he had portrayed them, abandoned him. But he had accomplished what he had intended: “not his panegyrick, which must be all praise, but his Life; which great and good as he was, but not be supposed to be entirely perfect…and when I delineate him without reserve, I do what he himself recommended, both by his precept and his example.”       

To write a biography of Johnson after Boswell is like writing a play based on Holinshed’s Chronicles after Shakespeare. It is best done slant. Adam Sisman’s Boswell’s Presumptuous Task, which appeared in 2000, investigates how Boswell wrote the Life, and in the process provides encapsulated biographies of both Boswell and Johnson. There was no need to recreate the progress of Johnson from cradle to grave, but Sisman clarified Boswell’s story, and in places qualified and corrected it. Sisman’s book has verve, while these new biographies seem exhausted. Martin and Meyers dutifully retell the old stories, giving us Johnson as a young man, refusing to help his father run his book stall: “Pride was the source of that refusal, and the remembrance of it was painful. A few years ago I desired to atone for this fault. I went to Uttoxeter in very bad weather, and stood for a considerable time bareheaded in the rain, on the spot where my father’s stall used to stand. In contrition I stood, and I hope the penance was expiatory.” Martin can add only this: “The scene has been pictorially represented”—indeed!—“and cited so many times that it has become certified as one of the great images of Johnson’s troubled soul.” There is nothing more for him to do.

A biographer is supposed to be like a maker of mosaics: the facts by themselves may signify little, but properly arranged they cohere into images. For Boswell, all of Johnson’s dislikes—of swearing, being alone, discussing the weather, being read to, being “exhibited”—combine with his loves: of contradiction, activity, mystery, people before places, rhyme before blank verse. The index to any decent edition of Boswell’s Life is itself a delight, each entry almost a Rambler essay title: “on coining words,” “on politics,” “on his view of the Romans,” “on brothers and sisters,” “on debts,” “his view of Italy,” “his view of America,” “views on tipping.” When I first finished reading Boswell’s Life, Johnson seemed as real to me as anyone I had ever known. For a moment, my own existence seemed to overlap with his. The same cannot be said of most biographies, and certainly not of Martin’s or Meyers’s efforts. Even if Meyers’s revelations were true, would they change or improve how we understand Johnson’s life? Meyers claims to reveal that “Johnson’s greatest works…evolved from his tormented character”—but we have known that, and for a long time.

Of all the literary forms, Johnson considered biography to be one of the most important. “No species of writing seems more worthy of cultivation.” Boswell begins his life of Johnson timidly, because Johnson’s own short biographies—of Milton, Dryden, Pope, Richard Savage—are models of the form: “To write the Life of him who excelled all mankind in writing the lives of others … may be reckoned in me a presumptuous task.” Johnson thought that whereas every man might not have a book in him, a worthwhile book might be written about him: “I have often thought that there rarely passed a life of which a judicious and faithful narrative would not be useful.” He believed that to know how other men, especially ordinary men, have faced difficulty and grief would be of more value than yet another history of the downfall of an empire. “We are all prompted by the same motives, all deceived by the same fallacies, all animated by hope, obstructed by danger, entangled by desire, and seduced by pleasure.” Until accounts of all other lives have been exhausted, or until truly interesting new facts or judgments emerge, the existing biographies of Samuel Johnson should be considered sufficient.

Deborah Friedell is an editor at the London Review of Books.