http://www.todayinliterature.com

June 25, 2017

Boswell and Good

On this day in 1795 James Boswell died, aged fifty-four. Even without his two-decade relationship to Samuel Johnson and the books which came from it, Boswell would have a secure place in literary history. This is due to the remarkable stash of journals, letters and personal papers which he kept, and which his friends and relatives kept from the world -- out of "Pride and Negligence," to use the title of Frederick Pottle's book (one of several) on the incredible story. When Boswell's papers were discovered in the 1920s and '30s the journals were eventually published in fourteen volumes, with one of these, his London Journal, now a million-seller. Other volumes of manuscripts, letters and such documents continue to be published in scholarly editions issued by the "Boswell Factory" at Yale University, which made front-page news when it purchased most of the known hoard in 1949 for almost half-a-million dollars.

Johnson died at the end of 1784; Boswell's primary occupation over the next decade was in turning a mountain of notes, letters and memories into his Life of Johnson, regarded as a unique accomplishment in the genre. The writing was done in Boswell's Ayrshire mansion, where he hoped to avoid the habits of a lifetime and find a new "steadiness as laird of Auchinleck." His journals were boxed away by his literary heirs and descendants because he was unable to do so. As Johnson put it, he was "without skill in inebriation" and addicted to "concubinage"; as his own journals lament, "Signor Gonorrhoea" came to visit a total of eighteen times. Entries for his first return to London after Johnson's death document a drunken night in which he strayed into St Paul's Churchyard singing ballads with two prostitutes in red cloaks, got his pocket picked, and collapsed in the street. After attending the execution of nineteen criminals -- a side-obsession with Boswell -- he visited the nearby "Betsy Smith," complaining of "a shocking sight in my head" and asking her to "take it out." Her "pleasing vivacity" did so. Such passages are balanced by volleys of self-reproach and pledges to reform, and vastly outnumbered by passages of greater interest and charm, but those who inherited Boswell's mountain of papers tucked them out of sight in cabinets, trunks, attics and barns, in various parts of Ireland and Scotland. Some of this cache began to appear in the late 1830s -- an Englishman who found his purchase at a grocer's in Boulogne, France wrapped in one of Boswell's letters managed to salvage ninety-seven others -- but the bulk stayed hidden or lost for another century.

Some modern readers complain not of Boswell's libertinism but his puffery, or his toady idolatry of Johnson, but few argue with Yale's view that it acquired "the greatest collection of manuscript material that has ever been assembled about a single man or a single period." And most would agree that one scholar's estimation in the '20s probably still holds: "Probably no English publication of the last hundred and thirty years has made more friends or kept them longer." The following passage is taken from Boswell's Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides. It describes a stormy crossing from the isle of Sky to the isle of Coll, with a crew consisting of "one M'Donald, our skipper, and two sailors, one whom had but one eye." Johnson lay down below "in philosophic tranquility," with a greyhound at his back keeping him warm; on deck and ever ready is not the laird of Auchinleck or the sex maniac, or the hagiographer, but "Bozzy" the city slicker, who knows very well that he is out of his depth:
    ... I soon heard that our sails were very bad, and were in danger of being torn in pieces, in which case we should be driven upon the rocky shore of Coll. It was very dark, and there was a heavy and incessant rain. The sparks of the burning peat flew so much about, that I dreaded the vessel might take fire. Then, as Coll was a sportman, and had powder on board, I figured that we might be blown up.... As I saw them all busy doing something, I asked Coll, with much earnestness, what I could do. He, with a happy readiness, put into my hand a rope, which was fixed to the top of one of the masts, and told me to hold it till he bade me pull. If I had considered the matter, I might have seen that this could not be of the least service; but his object was to keep me out of the way of those who were busy working the vessel, and at the same time to divert my fear, by employing me, and making me think that I was of use. Thus did I stand firm to my post, while the wind and rain beat upon me, always expecting a call to pull my rope....

Buy at Amazon
Buy at Barnes & Noble