Tuesday, February 2, 2010

My mind was filled with many ideas of London, which relieved me from care.

The Life of Johnson (1791) is such a big brick of a book.  Unless the reader is lucky enough to find the postern unlocked, long books, really long books, require strategies and schedules and siege tools and, sometimes, explosives.  I say this as someone who has read Clarissa and Gibbon and Vasari and War and Peace, and who has been eying The Tale of Genji.  It's not just a matter of time.  I understand that.

One reason Boswell's The Journal of a Tour of the Hebrides (1885) is so useful is that it is a secret passage into The Life of Johnson.  Actually, as it stands now, it is a section of The Life.  Biographer Boswell takes Johnson's life up to August 1773 and then refers readers to the earlier book, which they all would have read anyways.  After a testimonial or two about how very, very good that book is, we find Johnson back in London, "ready to begin a new journey" (letter of Nov. 27, 1773).

So we see why I so strongly urge readers new to Boswell, or to Johnson, to read the Hebrides journal first.  It is not an annex to the bigger book, but an essential piece.  Technically, it is written very much in the manner of The Life.  Boswell requires several hundred pages to bring Johnson's life up to the crucial date of May 16, 1763, when Boswell met Johnson:  "I shall mark what I remember of the conversation."  He continues the practice, every chance he gets, for the next twenty years.  The Journal of a Tour of the Hebrides is the most concentrated period, ninety-four days in a row.  The reader who finds Johnson too platitudinous or Boswell too toadying - well, I don't know what to tell him.  No, I do - stay away from The Life of Johnson.  For the reader who finds Boswell and Johnson genial, there are thousands of pages more.

Many thousands.  mel u has called his reading of the complete set of Bowell's journals one of the great reading experiences of his life.  I know what he means.  I sometimes struggled, after finishing a volume, to not immediately start the next one.  The whole thing now reads like an impossible modern novel.  The central character, so to speak, is a brilliant creation, so to speak.  Boswell is a high-spirited depressive, a vain man who is not afraid to look ridiculous, alternately ambitious and lazy, a genuinely loving bad husband.  Wanting celebrity himself, he spends his life collecting celebrities.  Bizarrely, completely improbably, this results in one of the monuments of English literature, and, in the journals, an additional shelf of worthwhile books. 

The first journal, the London Journal, is fortunately the best one.  It's a young-man-in-the-city classic (the post's title is from Dec. 1, 1762).  Free from his father, free from his studies, Boswell goes to the theater, dines, chases celebrities, chases a job, and chases women.  The Sex Scene (what? Jan. 12, 1763) is hilarious.  "The description is faint [not that faint!]; but I surely may be styled a Man of Pleasure."

It was here, in the London Journal, that I first met Boswell.- Johnson I already knew.  It seems odd, but since then I have read maybe three times as many pages of Boswell than of Johnson, many of them admittedly about Johnson.  But still. 


  1. The New York Times Best Seller List

    Feb 11-1951-Boswell's London Journal (just published) was on the N Y Times best seller list for the 12th week in place number 2

    1 KON-TIKI, by Thor Heyerdahl. 1 22
    2 BOSWELL'S LONDON JOURNAL, by Frederick A. Pottle. 2 12

    more latter this is to show a lot of people do read the Boswell for pleasure-

  2. I agree that London Journal may well be the best first Boswell-and if you do not like it then you will not like his other works-I do think the Tour of the Hebrides has prose which is a little easier to read than the Life of Johnson-Some people will be put off by Johnson powerful personality-some will be shocked when they read the London Journal to imagine that such a man could have written the world's best biography (to me there is nothing even a close second for the title)-Boswell had help with writing the biography in the form of Edmond Malone who kept him at work on the book when Boswell would have much rather been on the streets or in a tavern. The help was not in the writing but in the motivation and will to do it.

    It will be interesting to see the reaction of readers of the Journal who are not into Boswell and Johnson.

    I hope a few people will read the book for the challenge so we can get a diverse range of reactions to it

  3. Amateur Reader-have you yet read the Diary of Samuel Pepys (I know it is a bit out of the range of dates of your primary focus)-It also was one of the very best of my life time reading experiences-Pepys was in many ways a much stronger more "grown up" man than Boswell-I think anyone who likes Boswell's Journals would also find time spent reading the full Pepys well rewarded-I have also read Clarrisa and Gibbons but not Vasari-I am quite interested in reading Tales of Genji to increase my background knowledge for my reading of the Japanese novel (which actually in truth begins maybe 1885 at the latest)-Tales of Genji in the Penquin addition one the Donald Keene prize for best translated work from Japanese-

    On David Hume, I think the only work of his that could probably be read with any amount of enjoyment is the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion-His longer treatise-he has an ironic tone that I enjoy (I am drawing on old memories here) is beautifully written but will be very remote from the concerns of most 21th century readers-I have not read his Histories and do not think many besides academics reads them anymore-

  4. I have never so wanted to read Boswell as right now! I've also been meaning to check out Pepys for some time. Oh, so many good books.

    Your construction of the Hedbridean journal as a "secret passage" into the Life of Johnson is very useful - thanks.

  5. Emily-I really hope you can find time to read Boswell's The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides-we need others to join in our conversation on this book-

  6. Oh thanks, I'd forgotten that the London Journal was a bestseller. Boswell's journals were not discovered until the 20th century. The publication of the first volume was a real event, in part because it was so good, an easy book to review well, in part because of The Sex Scene.

    I just read Robert Louis Stevenson's essay about Pepys, a magazine article from 1881. The essay is fantastic, and is now tacked onto the Modern Library's abridgement of Pepys. I've just read some anthologized selections - Stevenson got me excited to read more.

    But then there's the complete Duc de Saint-Simon, and Chateaubriand's memoirs, and Thoreau's journals. Although Boswell, and I'll bet Pepys, is more fun than any of those.

    Thanks for the note on Hume. I've just read a couple of essays.

    Emily - good, good! Boswell really was quite a writer, and one who knew how to pick a subject.

  7. I have read none of the writings of Duc de Saint-Simon or Chateaubriand-I have just read the Wikikpedia articles on them and I suspect their diaries are very interesting but I think Pepys would be more interesting-I have read the standard works of Thoreau (many years ago)-I am sure the journals of Thoreau are thought provoking but I can see tedium taking its toil in a way it would not with Pepys-

  8. hmm where to begin. Still pondering.

  9. Darn you Amateur Reader! You are screwing up my TBR list! :) I've been interested in reading Chateaubriand's memoirs for a number of years but they seem hard to come by though it appears that my univerity library catalog has one in English but aren't there several? I'd love to read Thoreau's journals but I have to read Emerson's journals first. Since there are 12 of them that's going to take me some time to get through!

  10. Stefanie, there's a 6 volume 1902 translation of Chateaubriand's Mémoires d'Outre-Tombe out there somewhere, but I bet I will someday read that one-volume abridgement and be pretty much content.

    Did you see that Library of America has an edition of Emerson's journals forthcoming in two fat volumes. Tempting, hmm?

    Rebecca - luckily there's no wrong answer!

  11. Oh, no, I didn't see that Library of America was doing Emerson's journals! That's tempting but being the glutton I am, I would always wonder what got left out. And good to know about the 1902 6 vol translation of Chateaubriand. I suppose the abridgment would be satisfactory in this case.

  12. Good point. The LOA volumes (literally just published) are generous - 1,900 pages - but will not satisfy that nagging completeness neurosis.