19 JULY 1940, Page 17

Ursa Major

Johnson Without-Boswell. Edited by Hugh Kingsmill. (Methuen 8s. 6d.) Johnson Without-Boswell. Edited by Hugh Kingsmill. (Methuen 8s. 6d.) THE process of cutting up Doctor, Johnson (Burke responsible for the unsavoury metaphOi) has been a favourite pastime of literary amateurs ever Since -Johnaoti hiniself becarne. a Man of chintz:ice. From this vast and accessible corpus of anecdote it is easy to pick, shuffle and rearrange the old stories in a new pattern, or to produce a fresh commentary. „certainly: there is a great deal to be-said imfavour of the de-Bosivelliaitiorivflohnson, but ;there are many difficulties in the process. A presentation of the Doctor which leavei Boswell out of, the reckoning is neces- sarily a patchwork affair,-and it should conform in design, to the need or curiosity• of the Snide= Such a presentation has little value for the reader who knows nothing of Boswell and of the Johnsonian group as a whole. Much; again, will depend upon initiative and-mgenuity in research, and upon the assembly of scattered material hi orderly,' well-considered proportion:- The question of proportion is one of extreme difficulty. Our prejudice in the case of Mrs:, Thrale,- for example (a woman so frisky, vain and unveracicius!), may prevent us from realising the value of her record, and also from understanding her revolt against the unquestionable stupidity and inconvenience of Johnson. We have to discover what is valuable and what is negligible in the stodgy mass of Hawkins, and whether there is any value at all in the exceedingly dull performance of Murphy. We should also search industriously among the contemporary magazines and reviews which contain references to Johnson, his work and his associates. By such a process we mardiseover.to what ,extent the•figure of the Great Cham, as we know it-from-the Life, is the -invention of Boswell ; or, rather, of Boswell; and- of Malone irt collaboration. Johnson was rough in retort,- merciless .to the feeble, a man whose humour was almost invariably accompanied by rudeness, impatience or prejudice. With mere sonority he defeated argu- meat, and it is observable that the victims or provokers of his wit very seldom possessed any defensive weapons. This kind of personal attack was novel and refreshing to an age already sick of its habitual elegance. It was an assertion of manliness among the vapours, the Frenchified airs of metropolitan society. His no-nonsense manner still endears him to the more bullish type of British intellect. But in estimating the permanent value of Johnson we have to remember that he often displayed folly and ignorance, both in speech i.nd in writing, and we have to measure the extent, as well as the meaning, of contemporary applause. This is where a careful study of Johnson without Boswell might have real significance.

Mr. Kingsmill has assembled a collection of snippets from sources which are well known to every Johnsonian, and which are unlikely to amuse or instruct the casual reader. Nothing original has been produced, and the entire concoction might have been made after a few hours' work in the London Library. If it was Mr. Kingsmill's intention to produce a work of real scholarship, he should have gone much further ; he should have dug into the vast accumulation of material, both published and un- published, which might have offered him so rich a reward. If, on the other hand; he intended only to produce a popular study of Johnson, then he should have chosen livelier extracts, articulated by a running commentary. As it is, the purpose of the book is obscure, and its perusal unedifying. The absence of systematic dating and of detailed reference gives it an effect of carelessness, and it is impossible to discern any