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  • Boswell's Enlightenment by Robert Zaretsky
  • Margaret Carlyle
Boswell's Enlightenment, by Robert Zaretsky. Cambridge & London, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2015. 278 pp. $26.95 US (cloth).

Boswell's Enlightenment opens with a snapshot of its young subject atop Arthur's Seat hollering lofty homage to Voltaire and Rousseau. What follows is an account of James Boswell's coming-of-age in the age of Enlightenment, beginning with his unrepentant youth and ending with his foray into republican politics. Moral and religious lapses mingle with teenage rebellion, expressed in Boswell rebuking the judicial path laid down by his father, Lord Auchinleck. Boswell turns his attention to libertine Glaswegian streets in search of libations, theatre, and women. His vice-laden youth hardly strayed from the course of other young men of rank, with one important difference: Boswell's flirtation with libertine ways did not define his experience of enlightenment. Rather, a cycle of sexual shenanigans followed by debilitating bouts of venereal disease contoured much richer periods of depression, celibacy, and self-discovery.

Robert Zaretsky's narrative is devoted to Boswell's continental Grand Tour of 1763 to 1765, the year-and-a-half during which he travelled to Holland, France, and Switzerland before returning to England from Corsica via Paris. Boswell's adventure is bookended by an unlikely friendship with his eventual biographical subject, the literary — and veritable — giant, Samuel Johnson. But this stands as an account of Boswell before [End Page 337] Johnson, when the young writer cuts his teeth on Enlightenment philosophies before settling into the role of Johnson's admirer, confidante, and sidekick.

While Boswell's odyssey ostensibly begins in Utrecht for law studies, the journey quickly becomes the destination. So, too, commences his dizzying canvas of the intellectual heavyweights of his time — David Hume, Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Joshua Reynolds, and Adam Smith. Boswell's encounters breathe life into controversies of the age, such as the execution and posthumous exoneration of Huguenot apostate, Jean Calas, through Voltaire's tireless activism (170–73). In the process of taking down conversations, Boswell quickly proves his worth as a journal writer intent on following Johnson's advice to "'review his own mind"' (85). What begins as an exercise in Calvinist salvation soon transforms into an exercise in absorbing the ruminations — and myriad heresies — of the Enlightenment's most celebrated minds.

Boswell's encounters push the limits of volubility, but rarely plumb philosophical depths. Philosophy remains for him a worldly activity best used to master life. Boswell reserved mastery for his subjects' portraits, which are singularly textured: "[f]ew individuals reported in so sustained and thorough a manner as did Boswell from the front lines of the Enlightenment" (13). This marked the start of his habit of directly incorporating conversations into his writings — to great acclaim in Boswell in Holland, Boswell on the Grand Tour, and his posthumously published The Life of Samuel Johnson.

Boswell confronted uneasy bedfellows on his grand tour: tradition and progress, faith and reason, deist philosophizing and secular interest. Yet he was perfectly suited to the task of harmonizing undisciplined curiosity with philosophical rigour. He was, after all, attuned to the dualities of being Scottish and grand tourist, parochial and worldly, dilettante and professional. Conflicting credos nonetheless took their toll on Boswell's psyche as he wrestled with questions of faith. His weakness for Roman Catholic pageantry might have been cured, had he only heeded Johnson's advice to frequent writers, not cathedrals, on his grand tour (84). Just like the jumble of Germanic kingdoms he encountered promised a nation not yet born, Boswell keenly patched together "a creed that could fit the demands of both his reason and his fears" (133). The eighteenth-century retreat of religiosity was both transformative and slow — and, for Boswell, incomplete. Melancholic bouts served up as the collateral damage of religious angst. Tormented by death and notions of the soul, a creeping Calvinism defined — and continually redefined — his spiritual outlook vis-à-vis Catholicism. As Zaretsky aptly puts it, Boswell "could not prevent life from operating, in often punishing ways, on his mind" (233). [End Page 338]

It is tempting in light of such inner turmoil to...


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