Saturday, February 09, 2013

`We All Depend Upon Each Other'

I’ve only now discovered that more than thirty years ago Robert Crumb illustrated selections from Boswell’s London Journal,1762-1763, a natural pairing of artist and subject. Like Johnson’s great biographer, Crumb fancies himself a libertine who revels in vice while dabbling in the higher things. He titles his six-page homage “A Klassic Komic.” It first appeared in Weirdo #3 in 1981, and I found it collected in The Graphic Canon, Vol. 1 (ed. Russ Kick, Seven Stories Press, 2012), a gathering of “Klassics” adapted by comic artists. A “Further Reading” note says “James Boswell’s racy London Journal is a lot more fun to read than that of any other eighteenth-century diarist,” but “racy” is only half the story. Despite Crumb’s adaptation, Boswell’s titillation quotient is modest.  Crumb starts with the first entry in the journal, dated Dec. 14, 1762: 

“It is very curious to think that I have now been in London several weeks without ever enjoying the delightful sex, although I am surrounded with numbers of free-hearted ladies of all kinds…” 

Crumb illustrates the seduction of “Louisa,” an actress from the Covent Garden Theatre, and contrasts these scenes with a dinner at the home of Thomas Sheridan, the Irish-born actor and theater manager, where the guests debate the merits of various translations of Horace. On Christmas, he discusses Thomas Gray’s odes with Oliver Goldsmith. On Jan. 12, Boswell and Louisa, under the pseudonym of “Mr. and Mrs. Digges,” arrange a tryst at the Black Lion Inn: “Good heavens, what a loose did we give to amorous dalliance!” The effect is comic, not arousing, and Boswell’s braggadocio is a hoot. Eight days later, Boswell wakes to a “poisonous infection raging in my veins”: “Too, too plain was Signor Gonorrhoea!” We know Boswell was treated at least seventeen times for venereal infections. 

You see the pattern, more apparent to Crumb than evident in Boswell. The cartoonist suggests rather heavy-handedly that Boswell was a mere hypocrite and poseur. His debauchery inarguable, but so is his literary genius. In the final panels, Johnson makes his appearance, over dinner on July 20, 1763, with George Dempster, a Scotsman who defends Rousseau’s notion that “the advantages of fortune and rank were nothing to a wise man, who ought to value only merit.” Johnson replies, bluntly: 

“If man were a savage, living in the woods by himself, this might be true; but in civilized society we all depend upon each other, and our happiness is very much owing to the good opinion of mankind.” 

Crumb’s two concluding panels, dated July 28, 1763, show Boswell and Johnson walking to the Turk’s Head, a tavern where they’re reserved a room. A prostitute approaches them and Boswell reports:    

“`No, no, my girl, (said Johnson) it won't do.’ He, however, did not treat her with harshness, and we talked of the wretched life of such women; and agreed, that much more misery than happiness, upon the whole, is produced by illicit commerce between the sexes.” 

In the final panel, we see the two men from behind, arm in arm, Boswell the taller, Johnson the broader, headed for the Turk’s Head. To the right, Crumb places a wooden barrel labeled “small beer.” On the bottom of the panel he writes: “In later life, Boswell made his name immortal by writing the famed biography, The Life of Samuel Johnson.” Crumb got that part right.

[Go here and here to see some of Robert Crumb’s Boswell drawings.]

1 comment:

Buce said...

Great catch, thanks. Boswell's London Journal was one of the first adult books I read with unalloyed enthusiasm but I have never seen the Crumb version.