Friday, September 15, 2017

'I Am Lost Without My Boswell'



Sir Joshua Reynolds: James Boswell of Auchinleck (1785)


The 1944 poem "Reading in Wartime" by Scottish poet (and pioneering translator of Kafka) Edwin Muir begins with the lines: "Boswell by my bed, / Tolstoy on my table":
Boswell's turbulent friend
And his deafening verbal strife,
Ivan Ilych's death
Tell me more about life,
The meaning and the end
Of our familiar breath,
Both being personal,
Than all the carnage can,
Retrieve the shape of man,
Lost and anonymous,
Tell me wherever I look
That not one soul can die
Of this or any clan
Who is not one of us
And has a personal tie
Perhaps to someone now
Searching an ancient book,
Folk-tale or country song
In many and many a tongue,
To find the original face,
The individual soul,
The eye, the lip, the brow
For ever gone from their place,
And gather an image whole.
If I understand him correctly, he seems to be saying that no-one can really die - no-one, that is, who leaves behind some kind of memory with the living.

If that is the case, then it's hard to imagine anyone who's left behind a more comprehensive record of himself than James Boswell, 9th Laird of Auchinleck (1740-1795).



Sir Joshua Reynolds: Samuel Johnson (1775)


Most important of all, of course, is his massive (and still well worth reading) Life of Samuel Johnson (1791). But it's worth remembering that he was known in his lifetime as 'Corsica Boswell,' for his account of that little-known island in the throes of its struggle for freedom against the Genoese.



Here's a short list of his works (or most of the ones published in his lifetime, at any rate):

  1. Boswell, James. Journal of a Tour to Corsica; and Memoirs of Pascal Paoli. 1768. Ed. Morchard Bishop. London: Williams & Norgate Ltd., 1951.

  2. Boswell, James. Boswell’s Column: Being his Seventy Contributions to the London Magazine under the pseudonym The Hypochondriack from 1777 to 1783 Here First printed In Book Form in England. Ed. Margery Bailey. London: William Kimber, 1951.

  3. Boswell, James. The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson. 1785. Introduction by T. C. Livingstone. Collins Classics. London & Glasgow: Collins, 1955.

  4. Johnson, Dr. Samuel & James Boswell. Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland & Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson LL.D. 1775 & 1785. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 1924. London: Oxford University Press, 1970.

  5. Boswell, James, Esq. The Life of Samuel Johnson, L.L.D. 1791. Introduction by Herbert Askwith. The Modern Library of the World’s Best Books. New York: Random House Inc., n.d.

  6. Boswell, James. Boswell’s Life of Johnson. 1791. Ed. R. W. Chapman. Oxford Standard Authors. 1904. London: Geoffrey Cumberlege / Oxford University Press, 1953.








George Willison: James Boswell in Rome (1765)


Funnily enough, the real story started long after his death. After a memorable slagging off by Macaulay, Boswell's stock sank pretty low during most of the nineteenth century. He was seen as a kind of glorifeed shorthand report, whose sole claim to fame was that he happened to be present during some memorable events.

His undoubted skill in submerging himself in the moment worked very much against him, strangely enough. People continued to read the Life of Johnson, but Boswell's part in creating it was depreciated to the point of invisibility: as if a great book could somehow come into being despite its author.

It was thought, also, that the extensive archives of letters and journals he drew on to create the book had all perished in a 'fire in Scotland.' A few attempts were made to investigate this, but the family rebuffed them for various reasons (mostly to do with the very complicated state of their finances, partially due to the early deaths of both of Boswell's sons: James of illness, and Alexander, his direct heir, in a duel).



David Buchanan: The Treasure of Auchinleck (1974)


Until, that is, Colonel Isham came to tea. The tea party in question was in Malahide Castle near Dublin, the home of the direct heir to the line of Auchinleck, the time the 1920s, and the result of this fishing expedition by a well-connected American book collector forms the subject of two books: David Buchanan's The Treasure of Auchinleck (which focusses principally on Isham's fascinating thirty-year quest to unite the Boswell papers), and Frederick A. Pottle's more general history of the whole strange sage, Pride and Negligence.



Frederick A. Pottle: Pride and Negligence (1981)


The story is too complicated to summarise here, but suffice it to say that the papers spread over houses in two different countries, in attics and haylofts and cabinets in old dusty rooms, were eventually united -- after various complex law-suits -- at Yale University, whence they've been issuing in a steady stream ever since.

The jewel in the crown of all these efforts was undoubtedly Boswell's incomparable journal, kept on and off for four decades, and now published (not quite in full) with extensive annotations and commentary in a series of 13 volumes:



Frederick A. Pottle, ed.: Boswell's London Journal (1950)


  1. Boswell, James. Boswell’s London Journal, 1762-1763. As First Published in 1950 from the Original Mss. Ed. Frederick A. Pottle. 1950. London: The Reprint Society, 1952.

  2. Boswell, James. Boswell in Holland, 1763-1764: Including His Correspondence with Belle de Zuylen (Zélide). Ed. Frederick A. Pottle. Yale Editions of the Private Papers of James Boswell (Trade Editions, 2). London: William Heinemann, 1952.

  3. Boswell, James. Boswell on the Grand Tour: Germany and Switzerland, 1764. Ed. Frederick A. Pottle. Yale Editions of the Private Papers of James Boswell (Trade Editions, 4). London: William Heinemann, 1953.

  4. Boswell, James. Boswell on the Grand Tour: Italy, Corsica, and France, 1765-1766. Ed. Frank Brady & Frederick A. Pottle. Yale Editions of the Private Papers of James Boswell (Trade Editions, 5). London: William Heinemann, 1955.

  5. Boswell, James. Boswell in Search of a Wife, 1766-1769. Ed. Frank Brady & Frederick A. Pottle. 1957. London: The Reprint Society, 1958.

  6. Boswell, James. Boswell for the Defence, 1769-1774. Ed. William K. Wimsatt & Frederick A. Pottle. Yale Editions of the Private Papers of James Boswell (Trade Editions, 7). London: William Heinemann, 1959.

  7. Boswell, James. Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, 1773. Ed. Frederick A. Pottle & Charles H. Bennett. Yale Editions of the Private Papers of James Boswell (Trade Editions, 8). London: William Heinemann, 1963.

  8. Boswell, James. Boswell: The Ominous Years, 1774-1776. Ed. Charles Ryskamp & Frederick A. Pottle. Yale Editions of the Private Papers of James Boswell (Trade Editions, 9). London: William Heinemann, 1963.

  9. Boswell, James. Boswell in Extremes, 1776–1778. Ed. Charles McC. Weis & Frederick A. Pottle. Yale Editions of the Private Papers of James Boswell (Trade Editions, 10). New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1970.

  10. Boswell, James. Boswell: Laird of Auchinleck, 1778-1782. Ed. Joseph W. Reed & Frederick A. Pottle. Yale Editions of the Private Papers of James Boswell (Trade Editions, 11). New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1977.

  11. Boswell, James. Boswell: The Applause of the Jury, 1782-1785. Ed. Irma S. Lustig & Frederick A. Pottle. Yale Editions of the Private Papers of James Boswell (Trade Editions, 12). New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1981.

  12. Boswell, James. Boswell: The English Experiment, 1785-1789. Ed. Irma S. Lustig & Frederick A. Pottle. Yale Editions of the Private Papers of James Boswell (Trade Editions, 13). New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1986.

  13. Boswell, James. Boswell: The Great Biographer, 1789-1795. Ed. Marlies K. Danziger & Frank Brady. Yale Editions of the Private Papers of James Boswell (Trade Editions, 14). New York: McGraw-Hill Publishing Company, 1989.



Marlies K. Danziger & Frank Brady, ed.: Boswell: The Great Biographer (1989)


The first of the volumes, Boswell's London Journal (1762-63), which records his famous meeting with Dr. Johnson ("I come from Scotland, but I cannot help it'), was a publishing sensation. Appearing when it did, in buttoned-up 1950, its revelations of Boswell's whoring ways among the street women and courtesans of the metropolis, made it seem like a saucy, rollicking read.

With the best will in the world, the subsequent volumes could not really keep up this reputation, and by the time the series finished in 1989, its British publishers had given up on it entirely, and only MCgraw-Hill in America was prepared to keep on issuing it faithfully. All of which is a bit of a pity, because Boswell's skill as an autobiographer certainly didn't lessen over the years.

What other pieces of Boswelliana ought one to mention? Well, there's the fascinating (and previously unknown) collection of biographical sketches of his friends by Sir Joshua Reynolds, which was found among Boswell's papers, and therefore formed part of the Yale edition of his writings (there are actually two editions: one for the general reader, and another - far more expensive and slow to appear - of critical editions of all the papers in the collection):
  1. Reynolds, Sir Joshua. Portraits: Character Sketches of Oliver Goldsmith, Samuel Johnson, and David Garrick, together with other Manuscripts of Reynolds Recently Discovered among the Private Papers of James Boswell and now first published. Ed. Frederick W. Hilles Bodman. Yale Editions of the Private Papers of James Boswell (Trade Editions, 3). London: William Heinemann, 1952.

  2. Boswell, James. Boswell’s Book of Bad Verse (A Verse Self-Portrait), or ‘Love Poems and Other Verses.’ Ed. Jack Werner. London: White Lion Publishers Limited, 1974.

Then there's the collection (above) of Boswell's poetry, for the really keen.

The standard biography is in two parts, the first by Frederick A. Pottle, the second by his long-time collaborator on the papers, Frank Brady. Adam Sisman's book, below, gives a good, succinct account of the complex process of composition which led to Boswell's immortal biography.

  1. Pottle, Frederick A. James Boswell: The Earlier Years, 1740-1769. London: Heinemann, 1966.

  2. Brady, Frank. James Boswell: The Later Years, 1769-1795. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1984.

  3. Sisman, Adam. Boswell’s Presumptuous Task. 2000. London: Penguin, 2001.

So next time anyone solemnly informs you that Boswell was a good writer by accident rather than by design, or that it was somehow easy to compile the greatest biography in the English language, tell them they're full of it. That pompous old windbag Macaulay (as so often) was dead wrong on that one. Boswell's long journal (together with his lifetime's crop of letters) constitute one of the most entertaining reads you'll ever come across, as well as being an incomparable source of information on just about everything to do with British (and Continental) culture in the late eighteenth century.



Thomas Rowlandson: The High Street in Edinburgh (1786)