(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

The publication of this second and last volume of the doubtless definitive biography of James Boswell may be regarded as a culmination of sorts of the Boswell “industry.” Since at least the 1950’s, edited volumes of Boswell’s journal have been appearing; in 1966, James Boswell: The Earlier Years, 1740-1769 was published by Frederick A. Pottle, the guiding light of the Boswell project at Yale University, the repository of the vast majority of the Boswell papers and associated documents. Dr. Frank Brady assisted Professor Pottle with several volumes of the journal and with the first volume of the biography. This second volume was to have been a joint project, but the press of other business forced Pottle to withdraw from active collaboration; Brady, however, testifies to Pottle’s contributions and advice, even though Brady’s name alone appears on the title page.

There are several volumes of Boswell’s journal yet to appear, and there will no doubt be still further specialized studies. Yale is producing both reading and research editions of the full journal and the correspondence and promises a catalog of the vast Yale Boswell collection. The Boswell papers themselves, their discovery and collection, are a separate and fascinating story, the subject of several books, including the most recent and authoritative Pride and Negligence: The History of the Boswell Papers (1982) by Pottle. The forays on Malahide Castle and Fettercairn House, the financial dealings, both public and private, and the revelations of human greed, folly, generosity, and patience all are fit subjects for a novel (probably a Victorian three-decker) and make intriguing reading.

If the history of the Boswell papers makes fascinating and intriguing reading, they are as nothing compared to the life and career of their author. The present volume opens with Boswell’s marriage and the best days of his legal career before the Scots bar. It covers his love-hate relation with his cold and unsympathetic father, his succession to the estates of Auchinleck upon that father’s death, his pride in his family, his forays to London, his attempts to make a career at the English bar, his constant drinking and wenching, his affection for his wife until her death in 1789, and finally his own death in 1795. The high points of the volume would have to be Boswell’s tour of the Hebrides with Johnson in 1773 and his final success in seeing the publication of the Life of Johnson in 1791.

The problems which are suggested by this work are done so by the subject rather than the biographer. The first problem is, so to speak, the question of “justification”—would the reader be as interested in Boswell, even given all the materials available, if he had not written the Life of Johnson? If the question is ultimately unanswerable, it is nevertheless true that Boswell, deservedly or not, has come to stand on his own; indeed, one occasionally gets the impression nowadays that Boswell has come to overshadow Johnson.

Another problem is whether Boswell can, on the basis of the great mass of journal material, which was never intended for publication, at least in its present form, be considered a great writer. In the Life of Johnson, and possibly in the Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (1785), Boswell is certainly a great writer, but in almost everything else he wrote, whether published or unpublished, he varies somewhere between second- and fifth-rate. Brady occasionally attempts to suggest that other of Boswell’s published writings have some merit, but the argument is not convincing.

The greatest problem is presented by Boswell’s character. It is usually expressed in the question, How could such a fool write such a great book (as the Life of Johnson)? For Boswell was a fool. While he was regarded by his own generation as conversable and companionable, a pleasant fellow at a dinner party, he was also seen as silly, a show-off, vain, and pushy. No one thought that he was any sort of thinker, nor was he regarded much (until the Life of Johnson) as an author of quality, though he was, after the publication of his book on Pascal Paoli and the island of Corsica in 1768, an author of notoriety. Virtually all of his works, even the Life of Johnson, suffer from his own desire to push himself forward, to make sure that the reader notices him, as well as whatever may be the subject of the piece. Boswell’s entire life and career were dogged by his ambition to shine, to be somebody, to have applause and recognition. With...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

Book World. XIV, October 14, 1984, p. 4.

Booklist. LXXXI, September 15, 1984, p. 103.

Library Journal. CIX, November 1, 1984, p. 2060.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 23, 1984, p. 2.

The New York Times Book Review. XC, January 13, 1985, p. 37.

Newsweek. CIV, October 1, 1984, p. 85.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVI, August 17, 1984, p. 49.

Times Literary Supplement. November 16, 1984, p. 1306.

The Wall Street Journal. CCIV, November 6, 1984, p. 26.