If we were asked (we have not been asked) to name a day the world ought to celebrate and does not, we would name the 16th of May. For on that day, in the year 1763, James Boswell first met Dr. Samuel Johnson.
This great event, which enriched the world with one of the most vivid panoramas of human nature known to man, happened in Tom Davies’s bookshop in Covent Garden. Mr. and Mrs. Davies were friends of the Doctor, who frequently visited their shop. Of them Boswell remarks quaintly that though they had been on the stage for many years, they “maintained an uniform decency of character.” The shop seems to have been a charming place: one went there not merely to buy books, but also to have a cup of tea in the back parlor. It is sad to think that though we have been hanging round bookshops for a number of years, we have never yet met a bookseller who invited us into the private office for a quiet cup. Wait a moment, though, we are forgetting Dr. Rosenbach, the famous bookseller of Philadelphia. But his collations, held in amazed memory by many editioneers, rarely descend to anything so humble as tea. One recalls a confused glamor of ortolans, trussed guinea-hens, strawberries reclining in a bowl carved out of solid ice, and what used to be known as vintages. It is a pity that Dr. Johnson died too soon to take lunch with Dr. Rosenbach.
“At last, on Monday, the 16th of May,” says Boswell, “when I was sitting in Mr. Davies’s back parlor, after having drunk tea with him and Mrs. Davies, Johnson unexpectedly came into the shop; and Mr. Davies, having perceived him through the glass door, announced his awful approach to me. Mr. Davies mentioned my name, and respectfully introduced me to him. I was much agitated.” The volatile Boswell may be forgiven his agitation. We also would have trembled not a little. Boswell was only twenty-two, and probably felt that his whole life and career hung upon the great man’s mood. But embarrassment is a comely emotion for a young man in the face of greatness; and the Doctor was speedily put in a good humor by an opportunity to utter his favorite pleasantry at the expense of the Scotch. “I do, indeed, come from Scotland,” cried Boswell, after Davies had let the cat out of the bag; “but I cannot help it.” “That, sir,” said Doctor Johnson, “is what a great many of your countrymen cannot help.”
The great book that dated from that meeting in Davies’s back parlor has become one of the most intimately cherished possessions of the race. One finds its admirers and students scattered over the globe. No man who loves human nature in all its quirks and pangs, seasoned with bluff honesty and the genuineness of a cliff or a tree, can afford to step into a hearse until he has made it his own. And it is a noteworthy illustration of the biblical saying that whosoever will rule, let him be a servant. Boswell made himself the servant of Johnson, and became one of the masters of English literature.
It used to annoy us to hear Karl Rosner referred to as “the Kaiser’s Boswell.” For to boswellize (which is a verb that has gone into our dictionaries) means not merely to transcribe faithfully the acts and moods and import of a man’s life; it implies also that the man so delineated be a good man and a great. Horace Traubel was perhaps a Boswell; but Rosner never.
It is pleasant to know that Boswell was not merely a kind of animated note-book. He was a droll, vain, erring, bibulous, warm-hearted creature, a good deal of a Pepys, in fact, with all the Pepysian vices and virtues. Mr. A. Edward Newton’s “Amenities of Book Collecting” makes Boswell very human to us. How jolly it is to learn that Jamie (like many lesser fry since) wrote press notices about himself. Here is one of his own blurbs, which we quote from Mr. Newton’s book: