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Eighteenth-Century Studies 35.2 (2002) 279-284

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Book Review

Something Old, Something New:
Two Recent (and Contradictory) Portraits of James Boswell

Philip Baruth,
University of Vermont

Peter Martin. A Life of James Boswell (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000). Pp. 624. $35.00 cloth.

Nellie Pottle Hankins and John Strawhorn, eds. The Correspondence of James Boswell with James Bruce and Andrew Gibb, Overseers of the Auchinleck Estate (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999). Pp. 336. $75.00 cloth.

For those of you shopping the first paragraph only, looking for the gist, I'll try to simplify things. Peter Martin's Life of James Boswell is to the earlier Pottle/Brady biographies what Michael Bolton's cover of "When a Man Loves a Woman" is to the Percy Sledge original: while energetic and clearly well-meaning, it offers so little that is new, and that in such a generally uninspired and occasionally annoying format, that it serves mostly only to restore one's appetite for the classic.

On even the few occasions when Martin presents material supposedly original--as with his refutation of the notion that Boswell's father spitefully scheduled his wedding to coincide with Boswell's, "as has often been thought"--it generally turns out that Pottle not only had the correct information thirty-five years ago, but handled it better (Frederick Pottle, James Boswell: The Earlier Years [New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966], 321).

One can't help but ask oneself midway through the text: why exactly was this book written? And why, one asks oneself near the end, was this book written by this particular scholar, who seems to have so little real affinity for his subject? [End Page 279]

James Boswell enjoyed only one thing in the world more than public or private celebration of his virtues: public or private castigation for his faults. Half the fun of "roaring" or whoring for Boswell lay in confessing his lapses; he confessed to his friends, he confessed to his journal, he confessed to his wife, he confessed to his wife through his journal. (He developed the economical practice of leaving the incriminating pages lying around their Edinburgh home, when he'd been particularly unJohnsonian the night before.) Once caught, Boswell was remorseful, often kissing the feet of the woman--wife or mistress--he'd offended.

That these "attitudes" creep out of the bed chamber and into the writing closet clearly discomfited Pottle, but he was astute enough to realize that related and inextricable impulses produced both Boswell's embarrassments and his triumphs. Boswell's first smash hit--the Account of Corsica--elevated Pascal Paoli in part at Boswell's expense, leading to Gray's oft-repeated observation that it involved "A Dialogue Between a Green Goose and a Hero" (366).

Of course, Johnson also knew these things about Boswell, the decidedly subservient, hero-worshipping, and even masochistic sides of his young traveling companion and chosen biographer. When Johnson gave the grudging go-ahead for Boswell to begin collecting Johnsoniana and biographical ephemera, he apparently did so with the half-sense that these qualities--far from disqualifying Boswell--actually put the Scot at the head of the list of candidates to write the Life. Johnson wanted a maleable biographer, one who would take instruction. (In Boswell's case, this instruction began almost upon their meeting in 1762.) To call it what it at least partially was, Johnson wanted a biographer who would venerate Johnson, an artist who would do for him what Boswell had done earlier for Paoli. And Johnson got what he wanted: a heroic and voluminous biographical tribute that made him more lastingly famous than any work he produced within his own lifetime, including the first dictionary of the English language.

But what did Boswell want in terms of his own eventual biographer? Inarguably, he wanted his own Life to make the Life of Johnson seem cursory. By preserving daily memoranda, filing newspaper puffs written anonymously and under pseudonyms, and by indexing autobiographical materials, Boswell made clear that nothing should be...


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