Sunday, July 29, 2012

`The Business or Rather the Pleasure of Every Day'

Once I dismissed James Boswell as a joke, a necessary but ultimately minor satellite of the great star he orbited, Samuel Johnson. Boswell was a dissolute, pox-ridden careerist who sabotaged his life until he met Johnson, whose example supplied him with the gumption to shadow the great man, methodically question him and observe him in action. The project turned a boy into man. Never has a work so definitively salvaged its wayward author. The pair met in 1763, when Johnson was fifty-four and Boswell twenty-two. Johnson died in 1784, and Boswell published his Life in 1791 and died four years later. Slowly I came to understand that Boswell was more than a witness to greater writer and man. He was a writer, a fortunate one who found his subject early. In a prefatory note to Alec Wilder and His Friends (1974), the jazz writer Whitney Balliett says: “There is no New Journalism; Boswell invented modern literary reporting, and we have all been improvising on him ever since.”

In the Wall Street JournalDanny Heitman celebrates another masterpiece, Boswell’s London Journal 1762-1763, one that remained unknown to readers and scholars until the nineteen-twenties when it was discovered in Malahide Castle in Ireland, and was finally published in 1950. Heitman says the journal
“…resonates with the urgency of a journalist working a beat. Although nothing ever seemed lost on Boswell, his `London Journal’ is particularly thick with impressions, no doubt because Boswell's tender age made him more impressionable than most Londoners.”
It’s a familiar theme – young provincial arrives in the city seeking his fortune. In his first journal entry, dated Nov. 15, 1762, this self-consciously literary young man writes:
“…I shall preserve many things that would otherwise be lost in oblivion. I shall find daily employment for myself, which will save me from indolence and help to keep off the spleen, and I shall lay up a store of entertainment for my after life. Very often we have more pleasure in reflecting on agreeable scenes that we have been in than we had from the scenes themselves. I shall regularly record the business or rather the pleasure of every day.”
Six months later, on May 16, 1763, he met Johnson for the first time in the book shop of Johnson’s friend Tom Davies. Their first exchange, as recorded by Boswell in his Journal, reads now like well-rehearsed shtick: “`Mr. Johnson,’ said I, `indeed I come from Scotland, but I cannot help it.’ `Sir,’ replied he, `that, I find, is what a great many of your countrymen cannot help.’”
Even without knowing the Life, a reader can enjoy the London Journal as a young man’s enthusiastic embrace of the world’s then-largest city. The prose, as Heitman says, is “thick with impressions.” On Dec. 11, 1762, the life-changing meeting with Johnson still five months away, Boswell writes:
“…I do think it is a happiness to have an object in view which one keenly follows. It gives a lively agitation to the mind which is very pleasureable. I am determined to have a degree of [Andrew] Erskine’s indifference, to make me easy when things go cross; and a degree of [James] Macdonald’s eagerness for real life, to make me relish things when they go well.”


Gary in Nairobi said...

I had a similar evolution of opinion on Boswell and enjoyed 3 months ago sitting in a London pub reading that long-lost journal.

George said...

The view that you first describe of Boswell is the classic Macaulayan one.

Chapman's edition with the combined "Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland" and "Tour of the Hebrides" makes for interesting reading. From Johnson we get on the whole better passages of writing. From Boswell we get some vanities and hangovers, yet we also get Johnson's conservation--in which Marvin Mudrick for one thought that Johnson was at his best--and many sharp observations. Johnson reflects that

"But if they are driven from their native country by positive evils, and disgusted by ill-treatment, real or imaginary, it were fit to remove their grievances, and quiet their resentment; since, if they have been hitherto undutiful subjects, they will not much mend their principles by American conversation."

Boswell records

"In the evening the company danced as usual. We performed, with much activity, a dance which, I suppose, the emigration from Sky has occasioned. They call it 'America'. Each of the couples, after the common involutions and evolutions, successively whirls round in a circle, till all are in motion; and the dance seems intended to shew how emigration catches, till a whole neighbourhood is set afloat. Mrs M'Kinnon told me, that last year when a ship sailed from Portree for America, the people on shore were almost distracted when they saw their relations go off; they lay down on the ground, tumbled, and tore the grass with their teeth. This year there was not a tear shed. The people on shore seemed to think that they would soon follow. This indifference is a mortal sign for the country."