Boswell (Magill's Literary Annual 1978)
James Boswell was a constant embarrassment to his family, and, when he died in 1795, so the story went, the family burned all of his papers so that he could cast no further disgrace on the family honor. The early twentieth century view of Boswell was essentially that of his family, reinforced by the sneering Victorian estimation of Macauley: that James Boswell had been a vain, loose, superficial, foolish social climber who had, by some process not well understood, ingratiated himself with the great Dr. Samuel Johnson and had stumbled onto the writing of the world’s greatest biography, The Life of Samuel Johnson. Then in the third decade of the present century, through a series of remarkable accidents, discoveries, and manipulations, the fact that the Boswell papers had not been burned came to light. Then the papers themselves were acquired from the Boswell descendants through some devious financial operations, and, by the combined efforts of Yale University and McGraw-Hill publishers, these papers began to appear in well-edited and annotated form to an eager audience. The present volume is the ninth in a series presenting Boswell’s private diaries and journals for our examination.
Boswell was just twenty-two when, in 1762, he left his native Edinburgh behind and set out to see the world, especially that great and wonderful center of British civilization, London. As his journey began he made several resolutions. He was, he thought, going to meet people, important people. James Boswell of Scotland was going to be known among the salons of Europe and to all the important members of those select groups, for most of all, except perhaps for wine and pretty women, Boswell craved fame with an intensity that bordered on obsession. Furthermore, Boswell was convinced his adventures would be of such significance that he should keep a journal from day to day in which he would record his actions, feelings, intentions, and impressions. This habit of maintaining a daily journal, begun in his youth, prevailed throughout almost the entirety of Boswell’s life. With amazing candor he entered everything, leaving himself utterly exposed to a curious world when these papers began to be published a few years ago. Everything is here: the excessive drinking bouts and the hangovers and remorse that followed in their wake; evenings spent with Samuel Johnson, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Oliver Goldsmith, and other famous men of the time; intrusions into the privacy of anyone of sufficient importance that Boswell would wish at a later time to drop their names in casual conversation; the sights, sounds, and smells of the bustling metropolis of eighteenth century London; and, of course, escapades with various ladies of various degrees of virtue, escapades followed not only by remorse but occasionally by attacks of venereal disease as well.
And yet the reader of the early volumes in this series is entertained with a lively sense of narrative and with a vivid sense of background: the eighteenth century comes alive under Boswell’s touch. We meet Dr. Johnson face to face, informally and unbuttoned. And the brash young man did have something apparently; he was, after all, admitted, and at times welcomed, into the company of writers, artists, philosophers, and statesmen with impeccable credentials. And so the image of Boswell was revised, and he began to be seen as urbane, witty, sophisticated, and in every way the superior of the character who had emerged from Macauley’s critical observations. He had his foibles, of course, but then so has everyone; and to be sure one can find redeeming qualities in anyone welcomed by the great Samuel Johnson. And, too, out of these accounts of his conversations with Johnson came the revisions that passed through a series of metamorphoses to become the The Life of Samuel Johnson, one of the world’s great books.
Through the efforts of modern editors, Boswell’s private journal covering a period of more than twenty years has now appeared. He may be seen as a gawking young man from the provinces just entering London, and then learning his way thoroughly around that great town. His visit to Holland in 1763-1764 followed next; he then took the Grand Tour through Europe, intruding on Voltaire, visiting the Corsican patriot General Paoli, conversing with Frederick the Great. This journey took him three years and into Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Corsica, and France. The well-traveled Boswell, now twenty-six years old, returned to search for a wife and to attempt to establish himself in his chosen profession, the practice of law. He was not a highly successful lawyer; indeed, he experienced several years of growing family and financial distress. And so he is to be found in 1778, at the beginning of the present volume, anxious concerning his meager legal activities and troubled with a host of other problems.
The text of the present volume is quite a different thing from the text of the first volume. Boswell, obviously, is older now and is beset with all the problems that growing old involves. His family is growing, and with it his expenses and worries. He no longer has the leisure for maintaining his journal that he had earlier; many of his entries, therefore, are highly abbreviated reminders to himself, presumably for future expansion which never took place. Many entries are made several days after their nominal date when Boswell had forgotten many of the details of a particular day’s events. Thus the lively narrative character of the earlier volumes is quite lost here, and the reader is given, instead, a series of discrete moments, some quite vivid...
(The entire section is 2331 words.)
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