Johnson and Davies
In October 1780, a poetic review in Town and Country Magazine reflecting on the recently published and immediately popular Memoirs of the Life of David Garrick, Esq., by Thomas Davies declared:
As long as old Time on this globe shall remain,
My Shakespeare and Garrick unrival'd shall reign […]
While Davies's name as historian and friend,
In Fame's brightest page shall on Garrick attend.
This poem added a new twist to the established story of Garrick as Shakespeare's champion and preserver; namely, it created a space for Thomas Davies, promoting the role of the biographer as an artist who might be able to approach— and be worthy of— the fame of a Shakespeare or a Garrick. Such a conception established the possibility that the biographer could appear in the annals of time, as the life historian joined the pantheon of exalted British artists. Davies's name thus became a symbol of the fame to be won from biography. In these pages, I argue that this phenomenon led directly to a burgeoning politics of competition among biographers visualizing their work as self- advancing, professional art rather than anonymous, collaborative record- keeping (although, as discussed later, it would leave room for readers’ participation).
By all rights, this chapter should be about Samuel Johnson's Memoirs of Garrick.
After all, the eventual Memoirs of the Life of David Garrick, Esq. Interspersed with Characters and Anecdotes of His Theatrical Contemporaries began as his brainchild. Johnson and Garrick had a long and storied history, having come from more humble origins to London together as teacher and student, respectively. Boswell suggests that Garrick's meteoric success, vanity, name- dropping, and affected ways irked the rather irritable Johnson, who jealously worried that his own fame, garnered as a literary critic, author, and man of wit, might be eclipsed by his pupil— an actor! Johnson was not a fan of theatre, Boswell speculates, especially after the failure of Johnson's play Irene; moreover, Garrick and Johnson's attempts to collaborate seemed to be star- crossed, likely due to neither man tolerating criticism well. Nonetheless, the two men remained friends, and Johnson was known to have a particular soft spot for his onetime student.
His own close affiliation with Garrick, including his enviable advantage in tracing Garrick's early years, would seem to position Johnson as an ideal biographer.