Vol. 18 No. 6 (June, 2008) pp.514-516
FRIENDSHIPS ACROSS AGES: JOHNSON AND BOSWELL; HOLMES AND LASKI, by Jeffrey O’Connell and Thomas E. O’Connell. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2007. 202pp. Cloth. $60.00. ISBN: 9780739120347.
Reviewed by Brett W. Curry, Department of Political Science, Georgia Southern University. Email: bcurry [at] georgiasouthern.edu.
FRIENDSHIPS ACROSS AGES is an unusual book. On the one hand, its protagonists are well-known figures in literary, legal, and political history. Samuel Johnson, author of the famed DICTIONARY OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE, is memorialized as a result of James Boswell’s meticulous biography, THE LIFE OF SAMUEL JOHNSON. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., surely needs no introduction to legal scholars. And, while somewhat lesser known today, Harold Laski is associated with a number of the twentieth century’s important political and literary endeavors. His friendship and correspondence with Justice Holmes, in particular, makes him highly relevant to American legal history.
At the same time, Jeffrey and Thomas O’Connell’s narrative is much more than an examination of the dyadic relationships between Johnson and Boswell, Holmes and Laski. Rather, it looks to two overarching characteristics of those relationships – that they involved “truly close male friendships of long duration . . . between men of widely different ages” (p.2) – and relies on those commonalities to structure comparisons and contrasts involving these four individuals across time.
O’Connell and O’Connell establish the parameters of their work in the book’s introduction. There, they provide abbreviated biographies of Johnson, Boswell, Holmes, and Laski, and foreshadow several characteristics that unite Johnson and Holmes (“the Olympians”) and Boswell and Laski (“the Outsiders”). For example, both the Johnson-Boswell and Holmes-Laski relationships lasted for approximately twenty years and, while neither Johnson nor Laski were lawyers, all four individuals possessed interest in the law. The two younger men were more progressive than Johnson and Holmes, had similar family backgrounds, and encountered varying degrees of prejudice because of their heritage (p.3). Johnson and Holmes, by contrast, were both childless, independent, and exemplified their respective historical eras.
In Chapter One, O’Connell and O’Connell provide an overview of Johnson, Holmes, and Laski’s views on politics and the law. Though he was not a lawyer, because of his deep faith, Johnson believed that religion should inform the legal code. For Holmes, by contrast, it was not religious belief but “experience” that structured “the life of the law.” Rather, Holmes’ legal realism and his adoption of Darwinian views on matters such as reproduction (e.g., BUCK v. BELL 1927) set him apart from Johnson’s belief that law is a direct descendant of religion (p.33). Finally, the Chapter touches on Laski’s evolution [*515] toward Marxism and argues those beliefs took on an almost religious quality for the Englishman later in his life.
Chapters Two and Three concern Johnson and Boswell, respectively. In Chapter Two, O’Connell and O’Connell provide a thorough account of Johnson and his views. The most revealing portion of the chapter discusses Johnson’s thoughts on law, which are largely contained in the Vinerian Lectures he authored clandestinely with Robert Chambers (1758). Like Holmes, Johnson viewed the law as reflecting the society it was designed to govern (p.33). Johnson believed that law should be comprehensible, should draw clear legal rules, and should be administered strictly (p.36). Indeed, Johnson’s religious devotion cultivated a skepticism of human instinct that made it imperative for him that law be rigorous and uncompromising. Accordingly, “[t]he pragmatic test of laws for Johnson was always: Is the law clear enough to be understood? Will people know the consequences of their actions if those actions encroach on their neighbors?” (p.44).
Chapter Three’s discussion of Boswell is the most succinct of the book’s chapters on the four protagonists. Here, O’Connell and O’Connell convey elements of Boswell’s relationship with Johnson, noting that layman Johnson regularly gave attorney Boswell legal advice throughout their friendship (p.59). Boswell’s relationship with his father is discussed, as is his puckishness and penchant for licentiousness. The chapter also argues that Boswell’s legal training provided him with analytical tools that would be useful as he authored THE LIFE OF SAMUEL JOHNSON.
In Chapter Four, O’Connell and O’Connell address Holmes and, in Chapter Five, Laski. In Chapter Four, Holmes’ full biography is presented, accompanied by details of his upbringing, his marriage, and his interest in literary classics. The chapter centers on his legal career, and discusses the dramatic events surrounding his ascendance to both the Massachusetts Supreme Court in 1882 and the United States Supreme Court in 1902. Here O’Connell and O’Connell discuss Holmes’ relationship with his Supreme Court colleagues, giving particular attention to his deep irritation with the willingness of the Court’s conservatives to strike down legislation (p.80).
Chapter Five formally introduces Harold Laski, Justice Holmes’ junior friend and correspondent of some twenty years. A leading figure in both British politics and academics, O’Connell and O’Connell paint Laski as an individual with access to a number of important figures of his day. He was acquainted with President Franklin Roosevelt, the Kennedys, and Winston Churchill, among others. As such, “[l]argely through his role as informal adviser to those in the corridors of power, he helped in important ways to set the stage for a number of the key, positive developments that have come about in his and our time” (p.108). Even so, Laski does not come away flawless. His career is described as “quixotic,” his championing of Marxism is subjected to criticism, and his willingness to exaggerate his access to the echelons of political power is duly noted (p.106).
The book’s final three chapters return to comparative examinations of these characters, beginning with an in-depth study of familial relationships in Chapter Six. [*516] Chapter Seven compares and contrasts Johnson and Holmes – “the Olympians.” While their views differed on important topics such as religion and the permissibility of war, here O’Connell and O’Connell point to what they argue is a chief similarity between the two men: both rejected static conceptualizations of the law, believing that it must adapt with time if it is to be effective in regulating society. Chapter Eight juxtaposes Boswell and Laski. O’Connell and O’Connell note their physical similarities, as well as their ability to reinvigorate Johnson and Holmes during their later years. The Chapter also discusses Boswell and Laski’s generosity and their keen interest in writing. However, O’Connell and O’Connell acknowledge questions surrounding the veracity of Laski’s literary work – namely, his correspondence with Holmes – forthrightly. The Chapter concludes by noting that both Boswell and Laski lived to be approximately the same age, and died defeated men.
FRIENDSHIPS ACROSS AGES is, on the whole, an entertaining and enlightening read. It utilizes a structure that facilitates a series of biographical juxtapositions in an accessible, thoughtful way. However, the book is not without its shortcomings. First and foremost, I found a number of the historical anecdotes – such as Chapter Three’s portrayal of Boswell’s buffoonery (p.56-57) and Chapter Four’s discussion of Holmes’ marriage (p.71-73) – tangential and distracting. Second, in light of the comparative brevity of the chapters devoted to Boswell and Laski (Chapters Three and Five), I believe O’Connell and O’Connell might have incorporated those points more effectively by absorbing the discussions into a single Johnson-Boswell Chapter and, similarly, a Holmes-Laski Chapter. Finally, structurally speaking, Chapter Six’s discourse on “Fathers and Females” seems odd as a brief, stand-alone section of the book. In short, sections of that chapter seemed extraneous, and the authors would have been better served to intersperse the most relevant portions of this information into the earlier chapters.
That said, Jeffrey O’Connell and Thomas E. O’Connell should be commended for their willingness to approach these literary and legal relationships from a unique perspective. Given the centrality of close, almost familial, relationships to this book, it is particularly fitting that it is authored by two brothers.
Boswell, James. 1885. THE LIFE OF SAMUEL JOHNSON. London: G. Routledge and Sons.
Holmes, Oliver Wendell, Jr. 1923. THE COMMON LAW. Boston: Little, Brown.
Johnson, Samuel. 1755. A DICTIONARY OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE. London: W. Strahan, for J. and P. Knapton.
BUCK v. BELL, 274 U.S. 200 (1927).
© Copyright 2008 by the author, Brett W. Curry.