Tuesday, December 21, 2010


Notwithstanding their defects

After looking long and hard at my very own bookshelves, I finally decided what this year's winter reading project shall be. Proust will have to wait - upon reflection I concluded that after consuming the Diary of Pepys last winter, I truly crave a substantial follow-up banquet (and French pastry will not do, if I may extend the metaphor, without any insult intended). I had my eye on a group of books that have accumulated around me like a windrow and remain unread. Until now. So I think I will take up residence in the eighteenth century for a time, in the bookish presence of two literary lions who have been lounging around my library for quite some time.

To dip a toe in, as it were, I begin with an attractive old Oxford hardcover. Which caught me right away, hook, line, and sinker. R.W. Chapman, in his introduction to Johnson's Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland and Boswell's Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (Oxford 1924), describes his work on this seminal edition during the summer of 1918 in Macedonia. It reads in part:

"...here, in the long hot afternoons, when 'courage was useless, and enterprise impracticable', a temporary gunner, in a khaki shirt and shorts, might have been found collating the three editions of the Tour to the Hebrides, or re-reading A Journey to the Western Islands in the hope of finding a corruption in the text. Ever and again, tiring of collation and emendation, of tepid tea and endless cigarettes, I would go outside to look at the stricken landscape - the parched yellow hills and ravines, the brown coils of the big snaky river at my feet, the mountains in the blue distance; until the scorching wind, which always blew down that valley, sent me back to the Hebrides. These particulars are doubtless irrelevant; but I like to think that the scene would have pleased James Boswell." (pp. vii-viii)

Chapman, in the finest tradition of the soldier-scholar, endures a terrible situation and wills his mind to turn to the solaces of literature, in the face of current events that defy understanding. This fine book is the result and I honor him for it.

In the illustrations which precede page 1, we see the title page of Samuel Johnson's copy of A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland (London 1703), with a long inscription written by James Boswell regarding the author, one M. Martin, Gent. The last sentence of Boswell's inscription reads, "I cannot but have a kindness for him, notwithstanding his defects." I feel just the same way about Boswell himself, and about the hero of Boswell's tale and life, Samuel Johnson. This is why I decided to spend some time in their congenial company.

I wasn't sure who to start with, but I realized that as the elder man and as Boswell's hero, Samuel Johnson it had to be. So, I've just completed the volume mentioned above, the two-for-one special Oxford edition, which begins with Johnson's account and continues with Boswell's diary of the same journey. Now I find myself well into Boswell's masterpiece The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (Oxford 1904). I hope to find a facsimile copy of Johnson's Dictionary of 1755; the copy I possess is only a contemporary abridged reprint. I have much other miscellaneous Johnsoniana and Boswelliana. Book reports to follow, over the next weeks (and possibly months). Until then, since I never stray far from painting these days, here is Gilbert Stuart's oil sketch of Samuel Johnson, which the Houghton Library at Harvard tells us was possibly made from life but also certainly copied from Joshua Reynolds's earlier portrait of his good friend. I love this unfinished painterly sketch because it shows Johnson's avidity for reading, and highlights Gilbert Stuart's robust-yet-delicate style:

In Johnson's own words, over the winter I hope to be "...entertained with all the elegance of lettered hospitality." (Johnson's Journey &c. p.5) May I also entertain you in turn.

Hope you have time (and the inclination) to include reading about Donald & Mary Hyde (Lady Eccles) and their Samuel Johnson collection at Four Oaks Farm (diaries, letters, teapot, etc.) as well as about Mrs. Thrale (another Johnsonian collector and, I believe, friend of Boswell). I have always wanted to know more about them all but have never had time to sit down and actually read anything of merit. Looking forward to hearing about your reading project throughout the coming months!
I have before me, as we speak, the slipcased two-volume set "Four Oaks Farm" and "Four Oaks Library" (1967), with an inscribed presentation card from Mary Hyde laid in... this set has wonderful photographs, including one of a by-then-elderly R.W. Chapman, when he visited the Hydes (and, one presumes, their incredible collection).

I do not possess the letters of Johnson to Mrs. Thrale, but I think I can get my hands on them in due course. Much of Johnson's "Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland" was compiled from such letters. I do have a biography of her. Boswell seems to be conducting a campaign of sorts with her (not *against* her particularly) in his footnotes - correcting some of her printed stories in places, and the like. They were both working to keep Johnson's reputation as a wit and intellect alive. I will be interested to find out more myself.

Thanks for your comment, I am really looking forward to both reading and writing about these fine folks, this winter!

A great choice. I have been dipping into Boswell's Life of Johnson for awhile. It will take me a long time to go through it, but that's okay.

Best of the season to you.

Happy Holidays, Dan - I hope Santa brings you some books! All the best from Maine -
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