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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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Beginning work on the Life, Boswell’s contempt for Scotland’s “coarse vulgarity” and “Presbyterian prejudices” got the better of him. He had long thought about relocating to London for good. Finally, in 1786, he and Margaret and their children made the move. It was a disaster. Boswell spent much of his time drinking with friends and accomplished only halting progress on the book. Margaret’s health deteriorated rapidly. She returned to Auchinleck and soon died there of tuberculosis. Though he had neglected her for years, Boswell was shattered. He wrote in his journal that he longed “to have but one week, one day, in which I might again hear her admirable conversation and assure her of my fervent attachment notwithstanding all my irregularities.”

Back in London after a dismal interval of mourning at Auchinleck, Boswell resumed work on the Life. He wrote by fits and starts, often moving forward only with the gentle prodding of Edmond Malone, a friend and Shakespearean scholar. He did not set out to be innovative, but, says biographer Adam Sisman, he did write consciously for effect. When he was in school in Glasgow, one of his teachers had been Adam Smith, who would later write the landmark economic treatise Wealth of Nations. Smith impressed upon Boswell the importance of detail—he said, for example, that he was “glad to know Milton wore latchets in his shoes, instead of buckles.” It was a lesson Boswell would never forget. He often said he wanted to write the Life like a “Flemish picture,” meaning rich in painstaking detail. He was a superb reporter, adept at ferreting tidbits from Johnson’s acquaintances, and of course he had shrewdly teased many vivid nuggets out of the man himself, keeping an especially sharp eye for tics and odd behaviors, such as the doctor’s shabby personal appearance, his “convulsive starts and odd gesticulations” and his appalling manners at the dinner table. “Let me not be censured for mentioning such minute particulars,” he pleaded. “Every thing relative to so great a man is worth observing.”

Boswell also took care to compose his book in what he called “scenes,” Sisman points out, skillfully dramatized little playlets piled one atop another. It was a technique all but unprecedented at the time. The result was biography as intimate epic—a stirring narrative with a glamorous supporting cast and the loquacious warts-and-all hero at center stage. Published in 1791, the book was an immediate success. Areview in Gentleman’s Magazine called it “a literary portrait . . . which all who knew the original will allow to be THE MAN HIMSELF.” The statesman Edmund Burke told King George it was the most entertaining book he had ever read. The massive, two-volume set was expensive—it cost two guineas, four times as much as a typical book—but the first printing of 1,750 copies sold out within months.

Boswell enjoyed some brief exaltation, and even took out a boasting ad in London’s Public Advertiser: “Boswell has so many invitations in consequence of his Life of Johnson that he may be literally said to live upon his deceased friend.” But some acquaintances, angered by his “practice of publishing without consent what has been thrown out in the freedom of conversation,” avoided his company. Others noticed that once he finished his great work, he lost his bearings. Perhaps the lowest point came when his daughter took him to task for misbehaving with one of her 14-year-old friends. “It seems that after dinner, when I had taken too much wine, I had been too fond,” he wrote in his journal, claiming that he had no clear memory of the event.

Boswell’s final years were grim. He remained in London, carousing and whoring; his health was ruined by repeated venereal infections. Hounded by debts incurred educating his children and buying land in Ayrshire, he complained that he felt “listless and fretful.” He died at home from kidney failure and uremia at the age of 54. “I used to grumble sometimes at his turbulence,” grieved Malone, “ but now miss and regret his noise and his hilarity and his perpetual good humour, which had no bounds.”

After his death, Boswell’s reputation went into a spin. Thanks in no small part to a devastating critique by essayist Thomas Macaulay in 1831, the writer came to be regarded as a toady who had somehow managed to produce a worthy biography that reflected the greatness of its subject, not its author. “Of all the talents which ordinarily raise men to eminence as writers, Boswell had absolutely none,” Macaulay wrote. That view began to change only after many of Boswell’s papers, including his journals, came to light in the 1920s. They were found in an Irish castle, where they had been taken by a descendant; some had been stuffed into a box used to store croquet equipment. Still more papers turned up later, including the original manuscript of the Life. Yale University began publishing the journals in 1950, and the first volume sold almost a million copies. Since then the journals have helped Boswell emerge from Johnson’s shadow. “We read him now,” says the National Library’s Iain Brown, “for the pure pleasure of reading Boswell.” What he wrote, and how he wrote, still matter. “Not only did Boswell invent the biography as we know it,” notes critic Charles Mc- Grath, “he was also, in effect, the father of feature journalism, and for good and ill he created many of the conventions we still observe. The celebrity profile oral history, documentary reporting the travel yarn, the high-powereddinner- party piece—the list of forms that he mastered or invented goes on and on.”

Even as Boswell’s reputation was undergoing rehabilitation, Auchinleck was falling into disrepair. By the mid-1960s, when another James Boswell inherited the house, it had so deteriorated that the new owner could not afford to fix it. He sold it, and in 1999 it was given to the Landmark Trust, a charity that rents historic buildings to vacationers. After spending nearly $5 million on renovations, the trust opened Auchinleck to overnight guests two years ago, which is how I was able to stay there last summer.

To get to the house, I drove from the village of Auchinleck down a country lane, crossed a small stone bridge and topped a rise. There I found a beautiful mansion standing all by itself in the countryside. Above the entrance, I noticed an elaborately carved pediment “terribly loaded with Ornaments of Trumpets & Maces and the Deuce knows what,” as another guest recorded in 1760, and below it Horace’s cautionary admonition about keeping a balanced disposition.

Exploring outside, at the end of a steep path I stumbled upon a small beach at the edge of the River Lugar, a slowflowing stream. On the other side, a cliff reared over the black water. It struck me that Boswell had taken Johnson to that very spot, and, so moved by the “romantick scene,” had confided to him his family history and gushed about his own distant relationship to King George III.

Neil Gow is a local judge and the current chairman of the Auchinleck Boswell Society. On my last day in Scotland, I met him in the churchyard at the Boswell mausoleum. Adapper man with a twinkle in his eye, Gow led me inside. Ducking our heads, we descended several stone stairs into a dark, arched space where nine Boswells, including James, his father and Margaret, lay in sepulchers behind unfinished stone. One niche was broken; when Gow beamed his flashlight through the hole, we could see a skull inside. On another sepulcher, I saw the initials J.B. “That’s where he is,” Gow said. So in the end, I reflected, heritage had won out after all. Here was James Boswell, surrounded by family—including the father he could not please and the wife he so often disappointed. In death, the reluctant Scotsman had done what he could not bring himself to do in life. He had come home for good.


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