Genius of James Boswell

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(Host) Summer is drawing rapidly to a close, taking with it the time for
summer reading. Commentator Philip Baruth has a last-ditch recommendation – a book written almost 250 years ago, by a 22-year-old Scotsman named James Boswell.

(Baruth) Until about 1950, James Boswell was remembered almost exclusively as the author of “The Life of Johnson,” sometimes called the greatest biography in all of English Literature. But in the 1950’s, the Boswell Project at Yale University began to publish Boswell’s lost daily journals, his autobiography. And now Boswell is remembered for other things as well – for being vain, a drunkard, a compulsive womanizer, and for being the greatest autobiographer in all of English Literature.

That paradox accounts for the centry and a half gap between Boswell’s death in 1795 and the publication of his journals. His executors didn’t have a clue what to do with these things. They were far too brilliant to destroy, and far too scandalous to publish. One of them did nothing except read through the pages labeling passages under two readings: “Exceptional” and “Reprehensible.”

Of course, Boswell’s papers eventually found their way into the hands of smart editors, and today you can just walk into the library and find them shelved right beside decent and respectable books. And if you do, let me recommend Boswell’s first and best bit of autobiography, “The London Journal.”

In “The London Journal,” it’s 1762, and James Boswell is twenty-two years old. He’s come up to London from Edinburgh to make his fortune, and to get out from under the heavy thumb of his father, a Supreme Court justice in Scotland. Boswell’s father wants him to be a lawyer, but Boswell wants to be a writer. Since his favorite subject is himself, he decides that his first book will be a journal of his year in the city, an accurate record of all that happens to him.

But Boswell realizes that a lot of daily life is unspeakably boring, and so he does what any genius would do he invents a system to make the record of his life read like a good novel.

Here’s the system:

Step 1: Before he goes to bed each night, Boswell writes himself a short memorandum, addressing himself in the second person. In the note, he lays out some good adventures for the next day, and how to behave while he experiences them.

Step 2: The following day, Boswell gets up, refreshes his memory of the script and faithfully performs the adventures – having coffee with a Duke, or disguising himself as a soldier, or a highwayman.

Step 3: Boswell then writes the adventure down in his journal. And since Boswell usually waits four or five days to write up events, he can very effectively shape the themes and the tension of the story. What he creates is non-fiction that reads like a pulp thriller.

The system was designed to make Boswell famous, and it did. It was brilliant, and don’t think the 22-year-old Boswell doesn’t know it. Here he is writing in his journal on the 9th of February 1763: “How easily and cleverly do I write just now! I am really pleased with myself; words come skipping to me like lambs on Moffat Hill; and I turn my periods smoothly and imperceptibly like a skilful wheelwright turning tops in a turning-loom. There’s fancy! There’s simile! In short, I am at present a genius.”

Philip Baruth is a novelist living in Burlington. He teaches at the University of Vermont.

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