O'Connells' Book Explores Friendships of Literary, Legal Giants

January 9, 2008 —  A new book exploring the friendships between 18th-century literary figure Samuel Johnson and his biographer James Boswell, and between 20th-century U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and British socialist Harold Laski, reveals how the relationships helped establish the legacies of Johnson and Holmes.

All four men were fascinated by, and wrote about, the law, although only Boswell and Holmes were lawyers, according to Jeffrey O'Connell, University of Virginia Samuel McCoy II Professor of Law, who co-wrote "Friendships Across Ages: Johnson and Boswell; Holmes and Laski," with his brother, Thomas E. O'Connell, president emeritus of Berkshire (Mass.) Community College.

"These two friendships are both intriguing and the source of much interest because in each case they led to writing of lasting significance — Boswell's journals and his immortal biography of Johnson and the superb letters between Holmes and Laski," O'Connell said.

Johnson and Boswell were intimate friends from 1763 to 1784; Holmes and Laski from 1916 to 1935. Boswell and Laski were both much younger than their mentors; at their first meeting, Boswell was 22 and Johnson 53, while Laski was 23 and Holmes 75.

"Laski and Boswell were precocious, Holmes and Johnson long-lived, with both facts being essential to the friendships," O'Connell said. 

Both Boswell and Laski died young — exhausted and spent. They were oft-scorned outsiders, Boswell, a Scot, and Laski, a Jew, and each shared critical flaws. Boswell was a lecher and a drunk; Laski was a liar and boastful self-promoter. 

"Yet each managed to befriend this much older Olympian figure, the great man of his age, and carried on for 20 years a warm, symbiotic relationship that was partly junior to mentor, partly son to father, but mostly stimulating mind to stimulating mind," O'Connell said.

If Boswell's most important contribution was his famed "Life of Johnson," Laski's lasting achievement was his correspondence with Holmes, the authors explain. Renowned for the quality of his letters, Holmes' best were written to Laski. If Boswell could earn immortality by exciting and memorializing Britain's greatest conversationalist, then Laski, the O'Connells argue, should also earn lasting importance by exciting and memorializing America's greatest letter writer.

"As Johnson's fame today is based primarily on his persona, rather than his literary output, captured through Boswell's biography, Holmes' place in history will not be based on his prolific 'professional' legal writings, which are now as subject to criticism as praise, but more broadly on his persona as a writer-philosopher, captured best in his rich exchanges with Laski," Thomas O'Connell said.

Although the Holmes-Laski letters have long been out of print, the O'Connells hope their book, published in December by Lexington Books, will spur their re-publication. "The longevity and insistent provocativeness of the letters were Laski's main service not only to himself but to his older friend," Thomas O'Connell said. "They stimulated the old judge during his last 20 years to do the best writing of his brilliant career in a valiant effort to keep up with — or to better — his dazzling young friend."

Ironically, both Johnson and Holmes dismissed their young friends' efforts by which their own fame is largely preserved.

"Johnson on more than one occasion barked at Boswell for his incessant scribbling while Johnson conversed, and Holmes urged Laski to destroy his correspondence," Jeffrey O'Connell said.

Luckily, in this regard, both Johnson and Holmes were ignored.