‘Pray gentlemen compositors …’: Boswell’s Life of Johnson from Manuscript to Book

Date: 9 June 2015
Time: 5:30 p.m.
Location: UVA Special Collections
Lecturer: Thomas F. Bonnell - Professor of English, St. Mary’s College

As the Life of Johnson moved through the press, and as Boswell kept revising his work (drafting new passages, deleting others, altering diction and syntax—often heavily), he confessed that his “perplexed writing” was so tortuous that he could barely follow his copy-text. Like a stag unable to “trace his own doublings,” he regarded the compositor with awe: “The sagacious hound can find out & follow them all. … The slow hound earnestly & steadily plies his nose.” But slow was a pace neither biographer nor compositor could afford. “Pray gentleman compositors,” Boswell pleaded, urging them to work quickly, and they on occasion called for more copy so the presses would not come to a standstill. Scrambling to fulfill their respective roles, Boswell assiduously supplied copy, left directions in the manuscript to enable the compositor to incorporate the right documents at the right junctures, offered advice on the layout of his printed pages, and revised his text even as he corrected proof. The compositors, in turn, did everything within their power to render the author’s work accurately in print, sought guidance from him in various ways, including taking dictation in the printing house, and improvised where unresolved contingencies in the copy-text lay beyond the reach of authorial control. The collaboration that played out between author and compositor throughout the process was of a depth and complexity to evoke—both figuratively and literally—the very definition of “compositor.”