Boswell’s Presumptuous Task

Adam Sisman

James Boswell’s ‘The Life of Dr Johnson’ is acknowledged as one of the greatest and most entertaining books in the English language: a model of biographical endeavour and achievement, an epic attempt to capture the spirit of a man who embodied the spirit of an age. And yet Boswell himself has generally been considered as little more than an idiot, condemned by posterity as a lecher and a drunk, a man who spent his short life in various states of dissipation, on a fruitless search for amusement and diversion. But Adam Sisman’s sparkling account of the writing of Boswell’s biographical masterpiece tells another story: of how Boswell succeeded in his presumptuous task of capturing the character of his garrulous, curmudgeonly, beloved friend Samuel Johnson on the page. And by tracing the friendship between the writer and his subject Sisman provides a fascinating, detailed and richly textured account of the writing of one of the masterpieces of literature in the English canon.

Reviews of Boswell’s Presumptuous Task

  • ‘“Boswell’s Presumptuous Task” – the quotation is from his own foreword to the Life – has an exhilarating narrative clip and its scholarship, though robust, is lightly worn. In the overcrowded field of Boswellian studies, it stands out as a major achievement.’ Guardian

    ‘Sisman has written a brilliant anatomy of modern biography, showing us its pleasures and its perils, and suggesting that the rise of literary biography in our own day has largely rested on the rediscovery of Boswell’s methods. No one interested in the literature of non-fiction should miss this book.’ Michael Holroyd

    ‘Extraordinarily gripping…Sisman skilfully takes is into the biographer’s workshop.’ New York Review of Books

    ‘A wonderfully vivid reconstruction of Boswell’s epic struggle, over seven years long, actually to compose the great work itself…Sisman’s account has the pace and heady excitement of a battle narrative, where everything is being risked.’ Richard Holmes

    ‘To attempt the biography of the greatest biographer of all is a literary high-wire act – yet one which Adam Sisman has accomplished with great success and in splendid style.’ Simon Winchester

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