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James Boswell's Scotland

The author of the Life of Samuel Johnson spent much of his own life trying to escape the country of his birth

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As it happened, I too stayed in James’s Court, at a small hotel. On one of the court’s three arched entrances, I saw a plaque green with age noting the connection with Boswell, Johnson and Hume. The building where James and Margaret lived was destroyed by fire in 1857, but others from Boswell’s era still stand, tall, gray and unadorned.

Johnson stayed with the Boswells after he and James returned from the Hebrides; to Margaret, the ungainly Londoner was the houseguest from hell. “The truth is, that his irregular hours and uncouth habits, such as turning the candles with their heads downwards, when they did not burn bright enough, and letting the wax drop upon the carpet, could not be but disagreeable to a lady,” Boswell conceded. She also complained about Johnson’s influence over her husband. “I have seen many a bear led by a man,” she said in ex asperation, “but I never before saw a man led by a bear.”

During the two decades they would know each other, Boswell and Johnson actually spent little more than a year’s time together; their friendship was conducted largely from afar. Even so, the older man became the central figure in his young admirer’s life, a “Guide, Philosopher, and Friend,” as Boswell more than once put it. “Be Johnson,” he exhorted himself. Though reconciled, for the time being at least, to living in Edinburgh, he tried to visit London for several weeks each spring. “Come to me, my dear Bozzy,” Johnson wrote, “and let us be as happy as we can.”

On Boswell’s visits, the two men socialized in taverns, in Johnson’s rooms and dining with friends. They discussed topics from literature and politics to religion and gossip, and Boswell took care to preserve the conversations in his journals. One day in 1772 they spoke of marriage, “whether there is any beauty independent of utility,” why people swear, “the proper use of riches,” public amusements, politics ancient and modern, and various literary topics. Most important perhaps to Boswell was this advice from Johnson: “[N]obody can write the life of a man, but those who have eat and drunk and lived in social intercourse with him.”

There were occasions for even more talk after Boswell was admitted to the Club, a prestigious group of intellectual heavyweights who met for dinner and gossip every other Friday. Boswell had worried about being blackballed, but Johnson watched out for him. “Sir, they knew that if they refused you, they’d probably never have got in another. I’d have kept them all out,” he said. Club meetings meant evenings of scintillating conversation with the cream of Britain’s thinkers—historian Edward Gibbon, naturalist Joseph Banks, social philospher Adam Smith and Richard Brinsley Sheridan all eventually became members.

The friendship had its rough patches. At times, Boswell felt the lash of Johnson’s temper. After one stinging rebuke, Boswell likened himself to “the man who had put his head into the lion’s mouth a great many times with perfect safety, but at last had it bit off.” Another outburst wounded Boswell so deeply he avoided Johnson for a week. The two men finally reconciled at a dinner. “We were instantly as cordial again as ever,” Boswell said.

He saved more than a hundred letters from Johnson and quoted them extensively in the Life, but their correspondence was erratic. Months might pass in silence, until Boswell roused himself from one of his depressions. Sometimes he requested advice—about his black moods, about his law cases, about his father. Johnson provided thoughtful, penetrating answers, even though the younger man could be every bit as exasperating on paper as he sometimes was in person. On one occasion, Boswell childishly stopped writing just to see how long it would take Johnson to write to him. Other times, he would fret, worried that Johnson was angry. “I consider your friendship as a possession, which I intend to hold till you take it from me, and to lament if ever by my fault I should lose it,” Johnson reassured him.

There was never any need to doubt Johnson’s affection; it was genuine. “Boswell is a man who I believe never left a house without leaving a wish for his return,” he once said. Among other things, the two were bound by melancholy. Johnson had a morbid fear of madness and he, too, fought depression, while Boswell analyzed his own precarious mental health to the point of obsession. Once, after watching a moth burn in a candle’s flame, Johnson said, “That creature was its own tormentor, and I believe its name was Boswell.”

The Hebrides adventure capped the most settled period of Boswell’s life. He was 32 then—reasonably content and cheerful, a busy, respectable advocate making a decent living, with a loving wife and the first of their five children. Eventually, however, he began drinking heavily, losing money at cards, visiting prostitutes. In his profession, he hurled himself into lost causes and earned a reputation for erratic behavior. After his father died in 1782, it was his turn to be the Laird of Auchinleck, a man of distinction. But soon enough the satisfactions of country life began to pall. And then, late in 1784, Samuel Johnson died of congestive heart failure at age 75.

The news left Boswell “stunned, and in a kind of amaze.” It was well known that he had long intended to write Johnson’s biography, and no sooner had the great man breathed his last than a letter reached Edinburgh from a prominent bookseller asking that Boswell do so. But before starting that monumental task, he wrote The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides— perhaps he, too, felt the need of a warm-up—which was published to great acclaim in 1785.

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