'Boswell's Enlightenment' posits the bold and bawdy James Boswell as an avatar of his era

This highly entertaining book argues that James Boswell – acclaimed biographer of and friend to Samuel Johnson – spent his life on an intellectual quest with goals akin to those of the Enlightenment.

Boswell's Enlightenment by Robert Zaretsky Harvard University Press, 288 pp. 2015 reviewed by Steve Donoghue

Sometime-law student and budding rake James Boswell was only 22 when, while visiting the bookshop of his friend Tom Davies in Covent Garden, he first met 53-year-old lexicographer and semi-legendary literary figure Samuel Johnson and commenced a friendship that would make both himself and Johnson immortal. And immortally connected – we scarcely ever think of the two men apart.

It adds an extra dash of intrigue to Robert Zaretsky's new book Boswell's Enlightenment, then, that Johnson is so seldom in it. Instead, concentrating on the Grand Tour Boswell undertook in 1763-65, our author has chosen “to trace one particular aspect of the Scot's life: his struggle with the great questions dealing with the sense and ends of life, brought into being by the Enlightenment.” Following his young hero to the top of Arthur's Seat overlooking Edinburgh, Zaretsky comments that “James Boswell and Enlightenment are as complex as the coils and wynds and streets forming the old town of Edinburgh below.” 

It's a pairing that seems as incongruous on the surface as the pairing of Boswell and Johnson themselves. Zaretsky rightly characterizes the Enlightenment as a high-minded movement devoted to reason, dedicated to “liberating humankind from the shackles of tradition and superstition.” It's an epic movement, fit for intellectual giants like Voltaire, Roussseu, Hume – and Johnson himself. Such momentous burdens at first look decidedly odd sitting on the shoulders of Boswell, a young man who often ruefully described himself as a “heedless, dissipated, rattling fellow.”

Even in Zaretsky's sympathetic telling, young James Boswell seems at least as dedicated to wine and women as to wit and wisdom. Rather optimistically, Zaretsky tells us that “this remarkable Scot toured not just the Continent, but also the ideas and ideals, hopes and fears of his era.” It's hard to know which of them – Boswell or our author – is fooling himself more.

In reality, Boswell's Tour was a thoroughly and typically ramshackle affair that even Zaretsky's spryly readable account can't entirely salvage from coffee house lounging, wine bar sousing, near-constant chambermaid-deflowering, and, as Zaretsky puts it, “nineteen or so bouts of gonorrhea.” (“This disease,” he informs with studied neutrality, “along with his excessive drinking, would eventually take its toll on even Boswell's robust constitution, as well as on his pleasant, if unexceptional features”)

When Boswell wasn't cripplingly hung over, or penitently undergoing mercury treatments for “Signor Gonorrhea,” or hunched over his writing table penning apologetic letters to his austere and disapproving father Lord Auchincleck, he was tracking down the famous people of his era with a single-mindedness that makes today's paparazzi look downright lazy. He sought out Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire; he schemed to meet Frederick the Great; he tracked down the romantic freedom fighter Pasquale Paoli in Corsica; he found rabble-rouser and political contrarian John Wilkes in Naples (about which location we're told: “When not enervated by the heat or wine, male tourists in particular were frequently floored by venereal disease” – you're almost tempted to see if Zaretsky has an MD, or a nervous mother).

It's true that in all of these cases Boswell was looking for those “hopes and fears of his era” as Zaretsky puts it, but he was also – and much more pressingly – looking for good material; he was and would remain an unceasing chronicler-to-the-stars. In later years he would go to great trouble in order to bag an interview with a dying David Hume specifically to try goading the old atheist into a scandalous sick-bed conversion (Hume had earlier summed Boswell up as “very good-humoured, very agreeable, and very mad”), and his behavior during these Grand Tour years was of the same cloth. Casting him as any kind of avatar of the Enlightenment is, to put it mildly, a bit of a stretch.

It's much to Zaretsky's credit that he makes it such an entertaining stretch, and he manages this is the surest way possible: by putting Boswell forward as, among other things, a harbinger of our own day, a living symbol of a transition from the high-minded ideals of a more pure intellectual world to the self-centered obsessions of day-to-day reality. “Humankind's descent from that distant fire to Facebook was a question of millennia, not maybes,” Zaretsky winningly writes. “The moment we caught sight of ourselves in the reflection of the other's gaze, we could never again go back.”

If that's true, then we're all living in Boswell's Enlightenment – and like him, we should make the most of it.

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