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)


6 comments:

Richard said...

This is, as always, very interesting. I knew that book 'Boswell's London' looked familiar. I of course (on seeing this) came up with a large chain of "connections". But in the process I had to rearrange books I had re Boswell and Johnson. I want to get back to this as I recently read 'Rasselas' by Dr. Johnson. By the way, it surprised me, it is very good. But I also read 'Amerika' by Kafka. And indeed the introduction was by Edwin Muir. A good introduction. I was surprised as somehow I associated him with 'years ago' as his was the textbook (or was it that he edited the (Methuen) King Lear? I think it was that. In anycase I then had a look at a couple of his poems and one I saw was very good. The one above reminds me of some of Browning at his most confusing (but I like Browing a lot, I tried once even to read his Sordello...'Hang it all Robert Browing!' Pound shouts for some reason in his Cantos)...but I looked at your list of Boswelliana (I have always had great trouble as Boswell is embedded in my mind as the biographer of Dr. Johnson (only recently I got a copy of that having read Rasselas...which, in fact, is the book the girl that Jane Eye befriends when she goes to the awful boarding school is reading. She later dies (as did the younger Bronte sisters in real life). Johnson's book for anyone reading this, is not long but it is very engrossing and intelligent.

But the book 'Boswell's England' had me concerned, I was sure I had it or something like it. I did, as well as two books (one by Boswell) I had 'Boswell in Holland' (one of the Pottle series).

It is important all this seeming bibliophilia. Not all for its own sake although for those who are 'pure collectors' (are there any such?) there is nothing wrong with simply collecting...but the history behind and the offshoots (that Boswell is a significant writer (we are getting used to the idea that some of the great works are biographies or journals and not only fiction etc) and the other interesting aspects enrich our reading and indeed our life. Muir whose other poem I read was better I think struggles with this idea and makes quite a good fist of it.

Time and money permitting I would like to complete the series. Needless to say, I haven't read (yet) a word by Boswell except possibly in quotation! But for reasons that are clarified in your spiel here at least in part, I see why I put Boswell's own work aside. But his name lives in anycase as he is perhaps forever associated with Johnson.

I also found that I had 'Johnson and Boswell - the story of their lives.' by Hesketh Pearson. A biog of the two of them!

Dr Jack Ross said...

Hesketh Pearson is good, I think. I've read a number of his biographies -- one of Gilbert and Sullivan, another of Oscar Wilde -- and found them very entertaining.

I agree that bibliophilia has its uses: in my case, mainly because I'm always curious to find out more about writers and their books, but also because the artefacts are themselves quite fascinating.

The problem is, of course, as ever, space: books are so heavy and so bulky and take up so much room ...

Richard said...

Yes. The name rings a bell. Of course I then Wiki it, everything is there or somewhere. Which brings up the problem of bulky books. E books. I recall long debates with an acquaintance circa 2000 in the local re the coming of an electronic book which was, as we speculated, either already there of on the drawing board.

In practical terms the e-book is the ticket and I thought of getting or organising something but so far I have avoided e-books. I see the libraries default to them. I think it is partly the new generations pushing for it, many if not all born in the computer age see our interest in books (almost everyone who comes to my house ignores my books - my grandson (who used to, unusually for a child, go into a library with me and pull out and seriously peruse or read books), my daughter, her partner, tradesmen (some of those simply dont see the books I think, they are invisible), and no one I know really except you online and Scott and my son (but he doesn't browse) has the interest. But I was brought up when there was no television. We had a valve radio, with three stations. There was one 'pop' channel 1BC for morons, IYA which was kind of middle of the road, and IYC which hs since become the Concert Program. We had no calculators and only in my teenage years did computers rear their ugly destructive head: they were in the Sci Fi stories I wrote, and generally they were evil.

I hired a TV when I was 19 in 1967. Until the mid 70s I had never used a calculator. There was a beautiful bush walk under Grafton Gorge, Whitebait to be had at Devonport where we went for English teas etc at my English Grandparents' house in Cheltenham road (on the corner near the reserve where we used to go over the wall via a tree and then play on the swings which is why I love Michael Steven's great poem re swings in Landfall not too long ago), and record players (my sister got one eventually) were at a neighbours. And I used to sit there at age 10 or 11 reading Dickens (about 10 of his novels) and other books (started with The Famous Five and then Biggles. There was a movie theatre in Panmure. We didn't have a lot of books then nor did I until 1995 or so I started accumulating or collecting. Now it is almost my only interest except chess. Social things dont interest me and I dont like going to parties or movies. We certainly had no cell phones or I pods, calculations were done with log tables, we used Pounds shillings and pence. There was no Harbour Bridge until 1959. I remember it being built. So we went to my grandparents via vehicular ferry. Whitebait fritters. My mother made them. They were delicious.

Richard said...

The world has changed Jack, and not for the better. In my view, and I can show it "it can be shown" is a phrase or clause mathematicians teaching basic calculus use (e.g. Roger Freeth - deceased - who was an Astrophysicist as well as a motor cycle and rally driver competitor (with Possum Bourne) talking about using intuition in calculus solutions, that was a phrase he used quite a lot); it can be shown that there is no sum total Progress. That the unquantifiable total Happiness of the human race has, despite I-Pod's and PVC etc has progressed not one iota. All that happens is that we change and those of us who, hopelessly, protest the destruction of Hard to Find and other such things are pushing it up hill. Books per se are on the way out. Of course collectors will still secretly amass their (hidden, one thinks of Ray Bradbury's book burning book and the movie - we DID have that American propaganda medium, movies even in the 50s, in black and white). So I grow old, I grow old, should I wear my trousers rolled? Signed, Decaying Out of Synch Fossil. [No by the editor: this man indulged in weird and quaint interests now discontinued, these involved things called books which were dusty, full of nonsense and lies, and not about all the lovely shiny new things we now have, he was a sad case, a tired, pathetic old man surrounded by thousands of unread books. When he died we had a jolly time burning them all and taking cell phone photographs of each other and being popular, having sex etc etc...all those bloody books he had, the silly sad old bastard...He had dangerous old ideas. He even believed in some things.]

Dr Jack Ross said...

I don't know if we should give up all hope just yet. All that stuff we were fed in the 1960s about how the image would soon take over from the word, and how film would dominate from now on has not really worked out quite as foretold: who would have guessed that the internet would be predominantly a print medium?

Richard said...

Of course! My moan is already a cliche. And while it is worthy and eternal topic these days I think as many read as not (there is probably the same proportions). But please indulge this old man in his near dotage! The joke was when seeing the moon landing the little old lady protested:

"What are they doing with all these technologal things going to the Moon! God didn't mean for us to do awful things like that, we were meant to stay nicely at home watching TV." A bit unfair on old ladies...but it is a sixties joke I think...

I like Baudrillard's simulacrum idea (and it is worth thinking about his thought, a bit showy perhaps, that 'The Gulf War didn't happen.' It still makes one think...(I prefer though Barthes writings say on the camera or the pleasure or the text etc: it is interesting and there was, who was it, the man talking about (I forget the writer) the Gutenberg thing etc...some of it has validity but not all change is bad. But neither is it good. Yes the internet supports book sales, and indeed publishing (even if e journals) but we can print things off and I do. And in fact libraries have become more expansive.

But psychologically, there is, as I get older, a feeling that things were better once. But I suppose this is quite a common feeling. Nor clear logic to it. Scott and I tried to visit a place, a spring, here in Panmure, that seemed like a wonderland: it is called by us then (in the 50s) Van Damm's. But Scott and I went back there (circa 2006) and I knew it wasn't there: it was there all right, but my feelings being there about 50 years ago were not those of an adult. The past is another country. And Scott looked at me, and he knew from my manner, my face. It was gone.
The other thing is that of course I was in the middle of technological social and cultural revolution that had, well it started about 10,000 years ago, but the cumulative affects had accelerated.
And we were watching movies and using a lot of things that were in fact very "technological". Technology starts when people make clothes or even sharpen a stick or rock.
In another mood, I see the benefits of many changes (not advances that is a human centred illustion we are no more advanced or "better" than at anytime in history.
But re books, films feed into books, and there a book blogs (yours and many others) and much writing about books. I think the same proportion of people read books. Perhaps another view could be that those who are adverse to reading books as such will and can learn via the many other media. Baudrillard and some of those European intellectuals were a bit snobbish....which is why I liked your mix of Britney Spears and Celan. Others didn't.
Strangely also, Ballard's books that often depict worlds totally disintegrating or e.g. one where the world is one vast city (!!), or where time is running slower and slower etc. For some reason I find them comforting. His near nihilism, his refusal to "offer hope" I like: it is so un-twee. Not just to be crazy, but if you can imagine such things (as in EMO and some of your other books)...if we can imagine the worst we feel, reading such books that somehow it is all right. It may not be, but we feel better about it possibly not being