Monday, February 1, 2010

Boswell and Johnson for the non-Boswellian and non-Johnsonian

I could not have asked for a better first entry to the Scottish Literature Challenge than this post on James Boswell's The Journal of the Tour to the Hebrides (1785) by mel u at The Readling Life.  His post fills in a lot of the background of Boswell and Samuel Johnson's travels through Scotland and the Hebrides.  It reminded me that my recent reading of the book, like his, was a little different than that of many readers.

Mel and I both read the books as longtime friends of Boswell, and I do not simply mean that we were both rereading.  I'll start speaking just for myself here.  When I first read Johnson's book, I had already made my way through hundreds of pages of Johnson (the Oxford Major Works), plus a half dozen volumes of Boswell's journals, which include many detailed recollections of Johnson.  Johnson's voice and personality and quirks were well known to me.  Boswell's, too.

A reader approaching Boswell without this background - for which there is no need! - may be surprised at what he finds.  In this book about travelling in the Hebrides, why, exactly, is there so much discussion of London stage-acting, or the quoibles of Oliver Goldsmith, or Dr. Johnson's opinions about a book of sermons?

Johnson's account of the trip, Journey to the Western Islands (1775), is a more typical 18th century travel book.  He intersperses the chronological journey with historical and moral observations.  Although I think the book is a first-rate way to encounter Johnson's writing, the book is not really about him.  He is contributing to our knowledge of the world and our understanding of the way we live through the details of the lives of the Hebrideans, the materials from which their spoons are made and the price they get for the kelp they gather. 

A younger Boswell had written a travel book of his own, the Account of Corsica; The Journal of a Tour of that Island, and Memoirs of Pascal Paoli (1768), which made him mildly famous.  I have read part of this book - the good part, I am tempted to say, the part after the semi-colon in that odd title, the modern part, the part that is not about Corsica at all, but about Boswell.  Dr. Johnson thought so, too:  "Your History is like other histories, but your Journal is in a very high degree curious and delightful."*

By 1773, the time of the Hebrides trip, Boswell better understood his true gifts.  "Sir, you have but two topicks, yourself and me.  I am sick of both,"**  Johnson once groused.  The Hebrides journals has three topics, but the Hebrides are perhaps the least important.  The book is Boswell's first publication of what he called "Johnsoniana."

Marieke at The Lady Fern has said that she would like to read Boswell soon.  I hope she does.  She has been to many of the islands in the books.  She may or may not be so interested in the Johnsoniana.  But that makes me all the more interested in what she, or other readers, think of the travel portions of these old travel books.

A commenter at The Reading Life pointed out these barely believable National Geographic photos of the Hebrides, by photographer Jim Richardson.  I should mention that many of the photos are of the Outer Hebrides, so are not in Johnson's or Boswell's books.

Life of Johnson, September 9, 1769.

**  Life of Johnson, May 1776.


  1. Boswell's Life of Johnson is something I pick up and then casting by the wayside for other books a few times now. I can't quite make headway.

    Many of the Hebredes photos are composites- truly not to be believed

  2. I think now that reading the prose of Boswell and Johnson may present more of a challenge to 21th century readers than I realized-Maybe one's first Boswell should be The London Journals (in print in Paperback)-I do not think A Tour of Corsica is suitable for the 21th century reader and I think Amateur reader agrees-Boswell's prose in that work is very mannered-Boswell had a long and interesting relationship with General Paoli as a result of this trip-(another father figure)

    I do think of Boswell as a friend-I have read I guess 8000 pages of his writings-I am sure I forgive him faults I would point out in others and I know I shrug off his social views in a lot of cases-

    Art-keep trying on the Life of Johnson-read a tiny bit at a time-

  3. Now I want to read MORE Boswell. How can I limit it? Oh wait, I only have so much time...

  4. I followed up on some of this today. You all might detect your contributions.