Skip to main content

More About Boswell

ISSUE:  Winter 1937

Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D, By James Boswell. Now First Published from the Original Manuscript. Prepared for the Press, with Preface and Notes by Frederick A. Pottle and Charles H. Bennett. New York: The Viking Press. $5.00.

Boswell’s “Tour to the Hebrides” has always been reputed a livelier book than his “Life of Johnson.” In the present edition, “now first published from the original manuscript,” we have a book that is half as long again and more than twice as lively. The story of how that manuscript came to light as an afterclap of the “discovery” of the famous Malahide Papers has been told too often and too well to be repeated here. The more than a hundred pages of additional matter now triumphantly ineluded are made up of personal, frequently introspective observations on James Boswell; of topographical and historical facts already presented in Johnson’s “Journey to the Western Islands”; of indiscreet allusions to persons still living at that time or only recently dead; of homely details about food and sleeping considered too inconsequential to include; and lastly, of matters “inelegant” and “indelicate.”

Why should Boswell, whose genius consisted largely in comprehending the revealing power of details and who was certainly not famed for discreetness or refinement, have siphoned off so much of the cream of his performance? The most important of the several answers given by the editors is that while he was revising his manuscript for publication he had at his elbow the conventional, peremptory friend of himself and Dr. Johnson, Edmund Malone. Malone provided the starch that was lacking in the character of the often besotted and always procrastinating Boswell, but he unfortunately applied too much of that starch to the manuscript itself. Although it is possibly true that without his prod-dings we should have had neither the “Tour” nor the “Life,” we could easily have done without the timorous omissions and devitalizing generalizations inspired by him and frequently executed on the manuscript in his own handwriting. Henceforth Malone, distinguished editor of Shakespeare though he be, must occupy a niche of infamy with Warburton’s cook and “the man from Porlock”- -but a lower one than theirs, for his crime was deliberate.

There is always satisfaction in coming upon some aberration in the conduct of a great man of the past that proves him to have been no better than ourselves, some touch of nature that makes him seem our kin. It is knowledge newly gained, though knowledge hardly edifying, that Samuel Johnson sometimes emitted a thwacking Anglo-Saxon monosyllable unprintable in a polite review, that he did on quotidian occasions actually enter and make use of those convenient structures known as “little-houses” and was of opinion that “if ever a man thinks at all, it is there,” and that he “expatiated with fluency” on the subject of Boswell as a hypothetical eunuch in an even more imaginary seraglio ruled over by himself. Besides the facts that he was the author of the “Lives of the Poets” and is deemed the greatest conversationalist of all times, matters such as these must ever be assigned an importance that is strictly relative. Nevertheless, is there anyone so “modern” as not to devour them with something of the Victorian’s appetite for forbidden fruit?

Nothing could be more misleading than to imply that these juicy indelicacies form the principal or even a very important part of the new material, and the reader of the older version who expects to find here a footnoted Pepys-show will be disappointed. The incidents, anecdotes, and spicy remarks that can be lifted out like nuggets are few in number and importance when compared with the rich reward awaiting the more patient miner. A word omitted here, a phrase there, the excision of an epithet hurled at some transient bore or of the menu of a Johnsonian collation, half a sentence of malicious characterization toned down or deleted, the condensation of whole passages of vivid description—such formed the bulk of the revisions. The restoration of them is in its effect quiet, subtle, cumulative—satisfying and substantial, but usually not dramatic. The patient miracle of Boswell’s previous revelation of Dr. Johnson has been improved by him who first performed it, and we can now know better than ever that man who was already the best known among the dead or living.

It is impossible to suppress the sentimental wish that all Boswellians now among the shades might be granted a pen-tecostal holiday in which to peer over our shoulders as we read. What satisfaction for the scholar’s appetite of Birk-beck Hill, what material for Geoffrey Scott’s power of witty analysis, what a tangle of asininities for Thomas Macaulay to weave into his web and what provocations for his Whiggish, civil leer! All the other injudicious detractors of Bos-well’s fame, all those who have censured him not wisely but too well, will find enough rope here (as some have already found it in the Malahide Papers) with which to hang themselves still higher. But those who have learned from the great Johnson himself to see through the mist of vanity, divagation, and indecorum and behold the figure of a man of conscious genius, will behold that figure better outlined, with higher lights and deeper shadows. Boswell! the jackass, but not the fool, of genius—the engaging companion, the inspired observer, the incomparable interlocutor.

The critical impedimenta of the volume are as portable as sensible editorship can make them. In such work, footnotes are an inevitable necessity, yet here there is no footnote for the footnote’s sake, no pedantic overemphasis of the means to the end. The temptation to over-frequent editorial comment, which must have been great indeed in the restoration of a mutilated text such as this was, has been heroically resisted. All that is done is done for the sake of making Bos-well’s book satisfactory to those who have and those who have not read it in the older version. The editors tell us that they prepared in typescript a text “with an elaborate apparatus of brackets and textual notes” from which the copy for the present volume was transcribed. This anatomical text will, it is presumed, be issued later for those interested in literary scholarship. Let us rejoice meanwhile in the present readable text, compiled with an art which conceals craftsmanship instead of flaunting it. “Sir,” said the ghost of Dr. Johnson, glancing suspiciously at the ghost of the latest variorum “Hamlet,” “Timeo Germanos et data ferentes.”


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading