Notable Nonfiction Books of 2001
A Life of James Boswellby Peter Martin
For almost one hundred and fifty years after his death in 1795, James Boswell was considered to be a foolish failure, and his masterful biography, The Life of Samuel Johnson, was regarded as an accidental work of genius by a man who was primarily a drinker, gambler, and womanizer. When Boswell's personal journals were discovered in the 1920s and 1930s, however, it… See more details below
For almost one hundred and fifty years after his death in 1795, James Boswell was considered to be a foolish failure, and his masterful biography, The Life of Samuel Johnson, was regarded as an accidental work of genius by a man who was primarily a drinker, gambler, and womanizer. When Boswell's personal journals were discovered in the 1920s and 1930s, however, it became necessary to reassess him. With the publication of the journals, Boswell has emerged not only as a writer of the highest order but also as a man of geniality and high spirits who was unjustly mocked and chastened.
In this moving biography, Peter Martin assesses Boswell's literary achievements and uncovers the dynamic world in which he lived, from royal courts and drawing rooms to London's unsavory underworld. He reveals a man plagued by hypochondria and melancholia, equally candid about his pursuit of pleasure and the guilt that often followeda complex, infuriating, yet ultimately appealing character who produced much more than one superbly crafted work of literature.
About the Author:
Peter Martin is professor of English at Principia College in Illinois.
Notable Nonfiction Books of 2001
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- Yale University Press
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A World of Chimeras
`What a world of chimeras had I when young! it is impossible to give a notion of this to others.' This was Boswell's view in 1780, at the age of forty, a year when his imagination was particularly active explaining his early memories and persona, real and imaginary, to his mature mind. But he made such observations throughout his life. His journals and letters are filled with references to his youth, explaining his current behaviour and attitudes in terms of it, romanticizing, fictionalizing, defending, or accusing and lamenting it. His recollections on the whole were unpleasant or tinged with remorse and regret, not because he was obviously mistreated as a child though he had a far from ideal father but because he was an unconventional boy with an unusual temperament. He never completely outgrew his youth or grew into manhood. He was ever the boy, as Samuel Johnson once put it.
He was an unusual youth partly because, as he wrote in an autobiographical `Sketch' for Jean-Jacques Rousseau in 1765, he was `born with a melancholy temperament ... the temperament of our family'. This made him an easy prey for aggressive sense impressions, both physical and imaginary, not only because pre-adolescent sickliness conspired with strict Presbyterianism to perpetuate a strong morbid streak in him, but also because he had a highly active and poetic imagination, a sense of enchantment, charming and endearing to many but which no one in his family had the capacity to share. What is clear is that he sufferedgreatly during his childhood and adolescence.
In 1780 Boswell recalled two kinds of parental influence that plagued him for much of his life: his mother's religious strictness and his father's coldness. He was at this time suffering especially painful periods of self-doubt and hypochondria that coincided with the return of his younger brother David from Valencia after an absence of twelve years. David's return focused his thoughts back to his youth, as if he were trying both to account for how he came to have such an extraordinary personality and to snatch at visions of the boyhood he had somehow lost in the course of his travels, ten years of married life, and drudgery as an Edinburgh advocate.
The New (or High) Church in Edinburgh, part of the old choir of St Giles's Church, the `shamefully dirty' (in Dr Johnson's judgement) Boswell family house of worship, was being renovated in 1780 with new pews and other improvements. This was the church where, on endless gloomy Presbyterian Sundays through infancy and adolescence, James had sat rigidly and silently in the family pew, haunted with persistent Calvinist fears of the afterlife. Always on the lookout for poignant and personally historic moments that could spur his imagination and which he could record in his journal, but drawn even more by the compulsive memories of his youth, in June he attended the last service before the church closed for repairs.
As he sat in his father's seat, he was caught off-guard. Instead of attending to the service, `I meditated curiously on my remembering this seat almost as far back as my memory reaches of my pious mother sitting at the head of it of my dreary terrors of hell in it of my having an impression of its being so connected with the other world as to be permanent.' Terrors and superstitions instilled by his mother's scrupulous and suffocating Calvinism mingled with recollections of her saintly and tender warmth. The image of the old seat propelled `a multitude of ideas ... through my mind'. The cold terrors in the church, even at the age of forty, lived on `inwardly dark and cold' in his memory and imagination, yet on this occasion his happy mood prevailed and he hoped that the demolition of the family pew would somehow exorcise his fears of death `not a vestige of it to be left'.
A sign of his ambivalence towards his mother is evident in his almost complete failure to mention her in his copious journals. One of the two or three exceptions was in August 1780, after listening to four hours of sermons with David before the Sacrament: `In the evening, retired to my closet and seriously meditated and prayed of my dear mother and prepared for commemorating the death of Christ.' Even his brother, with `a degree of our family melancholy', was `cold in spirit' from the service. Though Boswell suffered from Calvinist terrors of the afterlife, a few months earlier he had uncharacteristically frightened his own children with stories of black angels and devils dragging bad people down to hell: `they were all three suddenly seized with such terror that they cried and roared out and ran to me for protection.' The incident `vexed' Boswell because he saw that he could not help himself: he had to inflict on his children his own religious nightmares.
Another early memory was revived after he beat his eldest son Sandy for telling a lie. Boswell's father had beaten into him the need for truth and integrity; now he was doing the same to his son:
I do not recollect having had any other valuable principle impressed upon me by my father except a strict regard for truth, which he impressed upon my mind by a hearty beating at an early age when I lied, and then talking of the dishonour of lying. I recollect distinctly having truth and honour thus indelibly inculcated upon me by him one evening in our house ...
Paradoxically, here a secular insistence on the truth mingled with memories of cold discipline and fear. If his mother was a warm saint who none the less encouraged in him morbid fears of hell and damnation, his father's coldness and severity ingrained in him candour and accuracy, or to put it negatively, a fear of lying. Boswell's truthfulness as a biographer and autobiographer would bring him fame at home and across Europe, but his father's legacy was not without a codicil of gall. `He is oak. I am finer but softer wood,' he wrote. His resentment over the beating still lay deep. As in the incident when he terrorized his children with spectral images from hell, he was still the slave of his childhood traumas.
Boswell was born into an ancient family which for two-and-a-half centuries had had as its seat the estate of Auchinleck in Ayrshire. Set in a pastoral landscape of rolling hills and green fields twelve miles east of Ayr and the Irish Sea, and within view of the Lanarkshire hills further to the east, Auchinleck House and its more than 20,000 acres inspired virtually all of Boswell's Scottish pride. The ancient heart of Auchinleck was down by the ruins of the Old Castle, in Boswell's time reduced to a ruined keep. This twelfth- or thirteenth-century fortification was the dwelling of the first Auchinleck Boswells, conferred on Thomas Boswell (of the even more venerable Balmuto Boswells in Fife) with extensive Auchinleck lands by James IV of Scotland in 1504 in reward for his valiant services to the Crown. A barony, that also came with the gift, lasted well into the nineteenth century. Thomas Boswell later fell with the King on Flodden Field, a heritage that was the stuff of romance for the young James. The ruins of the keep hung high over steep gullies carved out by the joining of the Lugar Water and its tributary Dipple Burn. Today all that is left are a few mounds of stone. It is a dark and quiet spot, precarious to climb and hidden among thick foliage, shrubs, exposed roots, and dead and dying trees. The streams below flow quietly, forgotten. In Boswell's day the place must have been equally remote and hauntingly dramatic, for in 1789 the antiquary Francis Grose found it interesting enough to include an engraving of the ruined castle in his Antiquities of Scotland.
Boswell's pride over his ancestry was underlined every time he took a walk down to the ruins from the new mansion, or when he showed the Old Castle to friends or a potential wife. As he wrote to Jean-Jacques Rousseau in 1764, whom he knew would appreciate the wildness of the spot, `[From ages 8-12] I read the Roman poets, and I felt a classic enthusiasm in the romantic shades of our family's seat in the country.' He impressed Dr Johnson with a similar thought several months after first meeting him in London: `He said, "I must be there, and we will live in the Old Castle; and if there is no room remaining, we will build one."'
When Boswell triumphantly brought Johnson to Auchinleck in 1773, it was the environs of the Old Castle that impressed the sage: `I was ... less delighted with the elegance of the modern mansion, than with the sullen dignity of the old castle.' Boswell's fullest and proudest description of the ancient scene came years later in his account of showing it to Johnson in The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (1785). After informing Johnson that the name `Auchinleck' means a `field of flagstones', not `a stony field', he continues:
On one side of the rock on which its ruins stand runs the river Lugar, which is here of considerable breadth, and is bordered by other high rocks, shaded with wood. On the other side runs a brook, skirted in the same manner, but on a smaller scale. I cannot figure a more romantic scene.
I felt myself elated here, and expatiated to my illustrious mentor on the antiquity and honourable alliances of my family, and on the merits of its founder, Thomas Boswell ...
A few yards away, another spot of `consecrated earth' also spoke of the past, `the foundations of an ancient chapel, dedicated to St Vincent, where in old times "was the place of graves" for the family'. In the Tour, he grieves over how his father violated `the remains of sanctity' there by dragging away stones to build the new mansion in the early 1760s. `Perhaps this chapel may one day be restored', he reflects. But there were still plenty of `venerable old trees under the shade of which my ancestors had walked'. And with a truly romantic iconographic instinct, Boswell promises, if he survives Johnson, to add to the genius loci by erecting a monument to him there.
This was the romantic-classical Boswell, even as a young boy defining his youthful landscape by merging two traditions: a boy whose neoclassical tastes were acquired through his Edinburgh schooling, but who already felt uncomfortable with his father's cold rationality and felt the compulsion to `expatiate' in nature's more expansive realm, to roam mentally and physically in larger world of his own image-making. Two hundred and sixty years (and eight generations) of the Boswell lairds of Auchinleck fed his fertile mind. In Young Boswell (1922), Chauncey Tinker suggested that Boswell was an early Romantic bound uneasily to the analytical and rational traditions of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. Auchinleck satisfied his boyish dreams of building castles in the air, inhabiting regions of enchantment, while his Edinburgh boyhood, by his own admission, narrowed his sights and pressed them into the service of Enlightenment civilization, its education, religion, salons, clubs, and family life.
Boswell's mother's ancestry contributed another strain of his romantic mythologizing. She and his father, ten years her senior, were cousins, both descended from the second Earl of Kincardine and the Dutch countess Veronica van Aerssen of the distinguished Sommelsdyck family. Boswell would make much of that link with the Dutch aristocracy, especially when he reached Holland in 1763, but there was more. Born Euphemia Erskine, his mother was descended from a minor branch of Scottish royalty: she was the daughter of Lieut.-Col. John Erskine, Deputy Governor of Stirling Castle, and through him the great-granddaughter of the second Earl of Mar, whose second wife was the daughter of the Duke of Lennox, a first cousin of the Earl of Darnley, King James VI's father. If that is difficult to follow, none the less it is a royal descent. Boswell made much of his royal blood, presenting himself as the future laird of a family established by a Scottish monarch. His father, so far as we know, never spoke of such tenuous family connections, at least not in public, and it is perhaps fortunate that he died three years before Boswell advertised his royal connection to the world when, in the Tour to the Hebrides, he recalled showing Dr Johnson around the Old Castle:
in the glow of what, I am sensible, will, in a commercial age, be considered as genealogical enthusiasm, [I] did not omit to mention what I was sure my friend would not think lightly of, my relation to the Royal Personage, whose liberality, on his accession to the throne, had given him comfort and independence. I have, in a former page, acknowledged my pride of ancient blood, in which I was encouraged by Dr Johnson; my readers therefore will not be surprised at my having indulged it on this occasion.
He even planned to include a genealogical table in the Tour `showing the collateral lines of descent of Me and of both the House of Stuart and the family now on the throne ... to point out at one glance my consanguinity to Royalty past and present'. He added, `I have the pride of blood in me to the highest pitch.' While such enthusiasms, privately indulged, were acceptable in a youth with a romantic outlook, they were unquestionably embarrassing when publicly aired by a man of forty-five. Fortunately, the table never appeared.
When Boswell was born in Edinburgh in October 1740, his grandfather James, the seventh Laird of Auchinleck, was still alive. Old James, as we shall call him, a highly successful advocate who in the wake of the Revolution dedicated himself to no-nonsense Whig principles and to the successful aggrandizement of the estate, was once described to young James, his namesake, as a `big, strong, Gothic-looking man', a `man of weight' and courage. He too was somewhat given to melancholy, and there was much about him with which young James identified infinitely more than with his father. As Boswell wrote in his `Sketch' of 1765, Old James `inherited from his mother a degree of hypochondria. When he was young he was idle, but his father forced him by beating him with a rod to apply himself to his studies ... He was often overcome with a dark melancholy and as he had been brought up to hide his bad moods and not to rise above them when he no longer had his father to fear, he no longer hid them.' He wanted nothing more than to withdraw from the world, but his wife, `more healthy and gay', prevented him. After her death, though, he became something of a recluse at Auchinleck, to his death plagued with `a dark mood and ... rigid religious beliefs', `doleful presbyterian dogmas' learned in childhood. In these passages, Boswell embraces a spiritual kinship with his grandfather. He always remained proud of him.
In his earliest years Boswell only knew the Old Castle from the occasional visit, but after Old James's death in 1749 he lived at Auchinleck House during holidays. It was an early-seventeenth-century Renaissance mansion built by Thomas Boswell's son David, an appropriate residence for the `Gothick-looking' grandfather, Boswell may have thought. Curiously, he never spoke of his boyish life and adventures in this house with David and his youngest brother John. His only surviving remark about his early life there was a troubled one, made at the age of fifteen, about the death of a newborn brother. It is the earliest surviving writing in his own hand, a polished, very well-written letter from Auchinleck to his `mamma' in Edinburgh. After comforting her, he changes the subject abruptly: `I sometimes try the shooting, and have shot two sparrows, which I know will disoblige my Lord, but as I am sorry for my fault and am henceforth to shoot at other birds, such as magpies and crows, I hope his Lordship will pardon me.' Even in this rural paradise, his father's strictness invaded his romantic dream.
Situated about two hundred yards from the Old Castle and Lugar Water, the house was L-shaped with a tower that may have accommodated the main entrance and a small hall. The top floor of the tower served as a lookout point, with an eye more to local civil disputes and skirmishes during the violent Scottish Reformation than to English incursions since James VI of Scotland assumed the throne of England as James I in 1603. Boswell and his brothers must have relished the watchtower, gazing over miles of Auchinleck acreage and out to the Lanarkshire hills, imagining a wilder and more dangerous time when the Lowlands were particularly vulnerable to English raids.
The residence, surrounded by high walls, was a comfortable and secure laird's house, with a grotto and fine gardens, but its romantic associations apparently were insufficient compensation for its inconvenience and incommodiousness by the time Boswell's family took it over. Neither did its antique and archaic character measure up when, in 1754, Alexander Boswell became Lord Auchinleck, one of the Lords of the Justiciary, an important figure in Scotland's cultural and legal world. His image as a modern man of property required a classically solid and modern mansion in which to welcome society.
The new house, completed in 1762 when Boswell was twenty-two, while not grand was impressive enough for the eminent new judge. Built in the mid-century Adam style with a large central pediment and flanked by curving wings terminating in large stone gazebos, it is decently long, but its narrowness is disappointing. `It is but a middling house,' wrote the Duchess of Northumberland in 1760, `but justly, it is a romantick spot.' The dining and drawing rooms were stately, with lovely plaster ceilings, but the staircase was not memorable, and except for the library where Boswell's father and Dr Johnson had a furious argument in 1773, the rooms on the second floor were small. Even so, Catherine Blair, one of Boswell's Scottish matrimonial hopes in 1767, had her head turned by it, telling him bluntly, `I wish I liked you as well as I do Auchinleck.'
While he admired the elegance of the new mansion, Boswell never outgrew his reverence for the antiquity of the old one which began to crumble with a speed that fed his ready appetite for nostalgia. By the time Francis Grose visited the scene in 1789, the `old place' had already lost its roof. Just a month after leaving home for his first extended stay in London in the autumn of 1762, for example, he comforted himself that someday he would live with `serene felicity at the delightful Auchinleck, the ancient seat of a long line of worthy ancestors. Here will I end my days in calm devotion.' He told Lady Northumberland, `Indeed, Madam, there are more romantic beauties there than at any place I know.' Later, in July 1765, revelling in the Virgilian iconography at Mantua, his thoughts flashed back:
when I am at Auchinleck in a sweet summer season, my imagination is fully persuaded that the rocks and woods of my ancestors abound in rural genii. There is hardly a classical spot which I have not upon our own estate, and even after having travelled the enchanted land itself, I shall not be deprived of my romantic dreams.
But Boswell was born in Edinburgh, not at Auchinleck. He was educated and lived most of his life there. He always had a romantic affection for the city, as revealed in this passage from his first London journal:
O Arthur Seat, thou venerable mountain! whether in the severity of winter thy brow has been covered with snow or wrapped in mist; or in the gentle mildness of summer the evening sun has shone upon thy verdant sides diversified with rugged moss-clad rocks and rendered religious by the ancient Chapel of St Anthony. Beloved hill, the admiration of my youth! Thy noble image shall ever fill my mind! Let me travel over the whole earth, I shall still remember thee; and when I return to my native country, while I live I will visit thee with affection and reverence!
Yet he disliked living there. He thought the town was `narrow' and insular, dull and coarse, oppressive, and depressing, but this, it is well to remember, was the Edinburgh of the Scottish Enlightenment, the `Athens of the North'. It was an intellectually exciting centre of philosophy, history, medicine, geology, chemistry, political economy, and sociology, and it `represented the avant garde of European thought in these and other subjects, much more so than London'. Even so, the city was simultaneously dark, dirty, cramped, and smelly, not the spaciously beautiful and salubrious metropolis it is today.
The `Old Town', as Daniel Defoe described it in the 1720s, only about fifteen years before Boswell's birth, was laid out along `the narrow ridge of a long ascending mountain', with the ground falling off steeply to its north and south. The Castle, perched on the massive Castle Rock, is at the upper west end of the long street which runs along the ridge; a mile away at the east end is Holyrood House, which sits at the base of the famous extinct volcano, Arthur's Seat. In Boswell's youth most of the shops, many of the public buildings, and the general mad bustle of civic life were to be found in the High Street. It overwhelmed the novelist Tobias Smollett when he saw it in 1776, `all the people of business in Edinburgh, and even the genteel company ... standing in crowds every day, from one to two in the afternoon' hawking their wares, talking commerce, gossiping, commissioning water-caddies or errand-boys, planning the evening's entertainments. Most of the people gathered either at the Market Cross in the middle of the street, or at Parliament Square next to the medieval St Giles's Church, or around the Luckenbooths, the row of four-storey buildings that ran down the middle of the High Street just a few feet to the north of St Giles's, creating a narrow and tenebrous footpath for pedestrian traffic. Defoe described Edinburgh High Street as `perhaps, the largest, longest, and finest street for buildings and number of inhabitants, not in Britain only, but in the world'. It was an impressive thoroughfare, to be sure, but not without its inconveniences, as Defoe saw: `which way soever you turn, either to the right, or to the left, you go down hill immediately, and that so steep, as is very troublesome to those who walk in those side lanes which they call wynds, especially if their lungs are not very good'.
`Proposals' in 1752 to expand the city to the north compared its layout to a turtle, `of which the castle is the head, the high street the ridge of the back, the wynds and closes the shelving sides, and the palace of Holyroodhouse the tail'. The wynds were very narrow and dark, by day almost always shrouded in half-light and by night impenetrably black except when lighted by the occasional lamp. They descended northward towards the North Loch and southward towards the next major east-west street, the not very healthy Cowgate, where Boswell lived briefly as a married man.
With an increasing shortage of land within the town's medieval walls and a population by the mid-eighteenth century that had reached between thirty and fifty thousand, one of the city's dominant and unique impressions was of towering tenement buildings, mid-eighteenth-century `skyscrapers' squeezed together, defying light and air to enter in. The only access to the upper floors was by common flights of stairs, up and down which the water-caddies clambered and all manner of goods and waste had daily to be carried except for what was chucked out of the windows on to the streets and wynds below at around ten in the evening, with a cry of `Gardyloo!' According to an Englishman A. Topham in 1775, the Town Guard's announcement of that hour was `a sort of licence for deluging the streets with nuisances and warning the inhabitants home to their beds'. The smell was revolting. There was little exaggeration in the description of such detestable living conditions in the 1752 `Proposals':
The narrow lanes leading to the north and south, by reason of their steepness, narrowness, and dirtiness, can only be considered as so many unavoidable nuisances. Confined by the small compass of the walls, the houses stand more crowded than in any other town in Europe, and are built to a height that is almost incredible. Hence necessarily follows a great want of free air, light, cleanliness, and every other comfortable accommodation. Hence also many families, sometimes no less than ten or a dozen, are obliged to live overhead of each other in the same building; where, to all the other inconveniences, is added that of a common stair, which is no other in effect than an upright street, constantly dark and dirty.
`In no city in the world [do] so many people live in so little room as at Edinburgh,' Defoe concluded. `Total stagnation', `narrow notions', `local prejudices', `meanness', and pervasive `ruins' are phrases the `Proposals' used to whip up the indignation of the populace and foster support for the idea of a fresh, neoclassic, Enlightenment New Town on a blissfully level plain beyond the North Loch. It worked, and in the early 1760s work began swiftly on the expansion according to James Craig's plan. By 1770 people were already leaving the Old Town for the New Town. David Hume, for example, one of the luminaries of the Scottish Enlightenment, moved into an elegant house in St Andrews Square in 1771.
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