Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

"The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides" by James Boswell

The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides by James Boswell (1785, 260 pages, reprinted by Penguin Classics, 1984-Included in the same book is Samuel Johnson's A Journey to the Western Islands)

I have been following Wuthering Expectations by Amateur Reader for some time now.   When he announced he would be hosting a Scottish reading challenge I knew at once that this was my spark to revisit an old friend, James Boswell, and a master of The Reading Life, Samuel Johnson.      I have read a lot of Boswell and some, though not nearly enough, Johnson.   I know everyone in the challenge will know who James Boswell and Samuel Johnson are but I want to explain who they are in my mind.

James Boswell (1709-84) was the son of a judge on the Scottish supreme court.   He grew up in Edinburgh Scotland and studied law, at the insistence of his father, at the university of Edinburgh.    Boswell was not a great attorney.   His first client was hung for stealing sheep.

Boswell loved the fast life, talking to the famous, the high and the low life of the big cities, and spent his life either trying to please his very harsh father or rebelling against him.  He also wrote the best biography ever written in any language, The Life of Samuel Johnson.
He  published a travel book about Corsica that was a best seller.   He met the greats and not so greats of Europe.   David Hume who scared him to death with his steadfast rationality and Voltaire  who tolerated the visit.   When Johnson passed away Boswell rushed his account of their joint trip to the Hebrides Islands into print so he could stake a claim to be the biographer of Samuel Johnson.  

Samuel Johnson is more read about than read.   He has a very good claim to be the greatest literary critic of all times.     He produced, with the help of some Scots, a massive dictionary of the English Language that the English liked to boast was superior to the one created for French by an army of scholars working several times as long.   He wrote speeches for famous politicians.   He wrote two wonderful poems, "The Vanity of Human Wishes" and "London".    He wrote a series of periodical essays that are unsurpassed anywhere.    His personality could be harsh but he was an extremally generous person.   In conversation he "spoke for victory" and did like to dominate with the force of his intellect.   To me, he is the sort of man who could have written the great wisdom texts of the world.

Boswell and Johnson had often talked of making a joint tour of the Hebrides Islands of northern Scotland.    (The Wikipedia article linked above gives a lot of interesting historical  data on the Hebrides).    Travel in those days was an adventure and the Hebrides Islands were at the time a very poor area ruled by near feudal lairds.   Most of the residents spoke only Scottish Gaelic and according to Boswell went barefoot most of the time.   

A lot of the  fun of reading Boswell's The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides is in the conversations between Johnson and others, including Boswell.   Boswell was a very keen observer (with some big blind spots) of social situations and we learn a lot about life in Scotland from his observations.   To me most of all it is a tale of a friendship between two very (Very) different sorts of men and a wonderful account of the pleasure of traveling.   Boswell said in his advertisement for the third edition of the Journal that the works of Johnson will be read as long as the English Language is spoken.   So far he has been right (lots of his works can be read for free on line).

I am a bit of a loggerheads how to post on the body of the journal.     After some reflection I decided I would try to illustrate the flavor of the book by looking at some passages.

Most biographies of  the times were hymns to great men.    Boswell was one of the first to give small details that let us know a person.

"I remember Dr Adam Smith, in his rhetorical lectures in Glasgow, told us he was glad to know that Milton wore latchets in his shoes instead of buckles.   When I mention the oak stick, it is but letting Hercules have his club"
Johnson is notorious for his joking comments about the Scots who were considered somewhat backwoods by Londoners.   

"To Scotland however he ventured: and he returned in great good humor with his prejudices much lessened."
Johnson never failed to learn from his experiences and he saw the world with open eyes.  He did not  see the world through his prejudgments.   (The same cannot be said of Boswell.)

In one very touching scene (Sunday, 15th August 1773-the journey took place from mid-August to mid-November 1773) Boswell and Johnson stop in at Boswell house.   Boswell's wife is a bit intimidated by Samuel Johnson (pretty much anybody would be).   Johnson got along very well with the Boswell children and left making a good impression on Boswell's wife (who had good reason to dislike many of Boswell's other friends).   Boswell's youngest daughter loved Johnson and saw through the gruff exterior.    One of the frequent topics of conversation of Boswell and Johnson was the emigration of Scots to America.   Johnson felt the emmigration had the potential to weaken the nation.  (Johnson  was basically in favor of independence for America based on the ground that England could not hold a colony so far away that did not want to be held and secondly a free America would evolve into a strong trading partner and potential ally.   He opposed slavery on moral grounds-Boswell's views on this are not so sanguine.   He supported the monarchy because he felt huge problems occur if there is no clear way of changing leaderships when a ruler passes out of power.)

Here is a passage that shows the clearness of Johnson's thinking.   Johnson thought through things for himself whereas Boswell liked to have "proper" views on things and worked backwards from his theories to the facts. 

"I said, I believed mankind were happier in the ancient feudal state of subordination, than they are in the modern state of independency.  Johnson:  to be sure the chief was:  but we must think of the number of individuals.   That they were less happy, seems plain: for that state from which all escape as soon as they can, and to which none return after they have left it, must be less happy:  and this is the case with the dependence on a great chief or great man".
Here we learn a lot about how Johnson got to be a man of great wisdom:

"Dr Johnson has the happy art of instructing himself by making every man he meets tell him something of what he knows best."

Johnson loved learning things almost as he loved reading, eating and talking!    Johnson also walked the streets of London (often for miles on end) in the company of men like Richard Savage in the early days when he could barely afford lodging.  He was very far from an ivory tower intellectual.  

On 30 August 1773 Boswell and Johnson encounter a very elderly lady living in a  primitive  peat hut along with fifty sheep.   Thier descriptions of the encounter are utterly hilarious.     Dr Johnson wanted to go into her hut (Johnson was 62 or so, huge for the time and Boswell was in his early 30s and looked a bit of a dandy).

"Dr Johnson was curious to know where she slept..She answered with a tone of emotion, saying (in Erse through a translator) she was afraid we wanted to go to bed with her.   This coquetry, or whatever it may be called, of so wretched a being was truly ludicrous.   Dr Johnson and I afterwards were merry upon it.   I said it was he who alarmed the poor woman's virtue.  'No Sir,' said he "She say "There came a wicked young fellow, a wild dog, who I believed would have ravished me had there not been with him a grave old gentleman, who repressed him.  "No Sir (Boswell replies) There was a terrible Ruffian who would have forced me, had it not been for a civil decent young man, who I take it, was an angel sent from heaven to protect me"."

There is another wonderful scene where somehow the pretty young wife of a minor Hebrides laird ends up sitting on Johnson's knee and kissing and hugging him.  

One of the best set piece in the journal involves the visit of Boswell and Johnson to see Boswell's father.   Boswell's father (a widower) was about the same age as Johnson and also very much, he was the equivalent of a supreme court judge,  a stern authority figure.  (Literary biographers of Boswell have pointed out at length Boswell's need for a substitute father figure that would be more accepting than his real father).   Boswell warned and begged Johnson not talk about either the Church of England or Cromwell as Johnson and Boswell's father had totally opposing views and both were used to having what they said accepted just because they said it.    Johnson resists the urge at first but he soon cannot help but ask Laird Boswell "what do you think of Cromwell and do you not agree the church of England is way superior to the church of Scotland?"    Boswell does not give us any details but he says he prayed they would not fall on each other!    From that day forth the father  would refer to Johnson as "Ursa Major".

Almost anywhere in this work you can find wonderful passages.   The book is the very model of a travel narrative.   We learn lots of interesting facts about the Islands and we greatly enjoy the company on the journey.   The prose is not hard to read and does not feel arcane.   You can feel the real friendship between Boswell and Johnson.   We also encounter some other names students of the 18th century will spark too.  We get a good look at country inns, sea voyages, and life in the Hebrides in the 1770s.   This book is also kind of a snack, the full meal is the massive Life of Samuel Johnson.   As Amateur Reader very rightly said it is amazing that a man with all the weakness of Boswell could produce this work.

Here is a statement from Boswell that we all can agree with

"everyman should keep minutes of whatever he reads. Every circumstance of his studies should be recorded; what books he has consulted; how much of them he has read; at what time; how often the same authors; and what opinions he formed of them, at different periods of his life. Such an account would much illustrate the history of his mind".

In closing I want to repeat that this is a fun book to read, not a chore to be completed for a class in the 18th century travel book.    In a month or so I will read Johnson's quite different account of the tour, A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland.  (I do not want to read them back to back, just my quirk here.)

In addition to the Scottish Challenge I am reading this book for

Typically British Challenge
Flashback   Challenge
Memorable Memoir Challenge.

I want to thank Suko of Suko's Note Book for directing me to, from which I made my banner for the challenge.    Amateur Reader has put a lot of thought into his reading suggestions for which I thank him.   I think later on I will read my first Robert Lewis Stevenson book and my first Sir Walter Scott since high school!.   I am also going to try to read the collected periodical essays of James Boswell.  (Published in two volumes under  the title The Hypochondriack in 1925)


Suko said...

Another brilliant review, Mel.

The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides sounds like a wonderful book. Johnson's love of lifelong learning really shines through in your post. I do not know enough about Samuel Johnson, and this book would be a good way to learn more.

Thank you for the mention (nice graphic!). And thank you for putting so much thought and care into this post.

Aarti said...

I tried reading Boswell's journal once but didn't give it much of a go and gave up pretty quickly. But having been to SOME of the Hebrides, I think this would be beautiful!

Incidentally, have you seen the fabulous pictures that National Geographic has of these islands? Here's a link:

Mel u said...

Suko-thanks as always for the comment

Aarti-I just looked at the pics in the link you provided-stunning pictures-one thing that saddened me in the book was Johnson's lack of interest in the ancient stone circles found on the islands-I think he was such a dedicated Christian that he could not have an interest in anything linked to another faith-

Marieke said...

I've just signed up to read this for the Scottish Lit challenge - now I just need to get my hands on a copy!

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Really great background. Next week I'm just going to point people over here.

I am nearly done with this trip through the book, and am wondering how much my reading - and yours - is affected by our warm feelings for Boswell. By the time I read this book, I had already been through at least a half dozen volumes of Boswell's journals. Boswell was a friend, and this book is in many ways a triumph for him (and it was a building block for the greater book yet to come).

So what I'm wondering is, how do you think readers new to Boswell and Johnson will take the book? What will they see differently?

I once tried to compare the amount of Boswell and Johnson I have read. I think it's about two and a half times as much Boswell. Given the rather different intellectual and historical statures of the two men, that's kind of amusing. Of course, a huge chunk of the Boswell is about Johnson.

Mel u said...

Amateur Readew A very good question-I do look upon Boswell as a friend-I probably ignore his weaknesses as a writer and even some of his social views because of my liking for his and because I know how hard it was for him to write his great work-

I have read all the Boswell Journals (one of greatest experiences of my reading life) in addition to his two travel books and the biography-and most of his collected correspondence-approaching my guess is 8000 pages-in terms of Johnson I have read maybe 1500-

Once years ago I had a very intelligent friend read one of Johnson's longer ponderous quotes from the Biography to see there reaction-it was wow he sure is full of himself!-

Very good question how those new to Boswell and Johnson will react to the book-by and large they wont care who they are (and not to be elitist how many today will have any idea who they are?), they maybe put off by the formal seeming prose, they might react in a negative way to Johnson's personality-I think it is not a book to be picked up casually and read-one has to know what it is before you read it to appreciate it-I can see many whose reading habits is limited to contemporary bestsellers might bog down in it real fast-

Marieke-I will very much look forward to seeing how you like this book

Rebecca Reid said...

Although I'm joining the Scottish Challenge, I'm doing so precisely because I know nothing, so thanks for this introduction to Johnson and Boswell. I think I may read an abridged Life of Johnson for this. It sounds delightful!

Stefanie said...

We are more forgiving and protective of those authors we come to view as our friends, it is only natural. I've only ever read a few of Johnson's essays and have always vaguely thought I might one day read Life of Johnson. Your post is wonderful reading and has me thinking that perhaps I should attempt to firm up my vague inclination :)