Boswell's Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides With Samuel Johnson, ll.d
THE foregoing words are but the unwieldy beginning of a title-page which continues: ’Now First Published from the Original Manuscript Prepared for the Press, with Preface and Notes, by Frederick A. Pottle and Charles II. Bennett.’ Both of the additional items are indispensable in even the most inadequate acknowledgment of this important volume. The first names the reason for its existence. The second assigns the credit for formidably intricate labors of editorship — labors carried out with unexceptionable judgment and a scholarship devoid of pedantry by two members of the English faculty of Yale University who inherited from the late Geoffrey Scott his unfinished task of editing the unpublished papers of Boswell.
The bulk of these papers, long believed destroyed, became the subject of a much-publicized literary resurrection when, in 1927, Lieutenant-Colonel Ralph H. Isham acquired them from Boswell’s great-great-grandson. Under the editorship of Scott and, after his death, of Professor Pottle, the material was issued (1928-1934) in a very costly, very limited edition in eighteen volumes. (It is gratifying to learn that, through the publishers of the Hebrides Journal, this material is soon to become more generally accessible.) In 1930, when this subscription edition was already well under way, there came to light a second cache of manuscripts, among them the original Journal which Boswell kept during his Scottish tour with Johnson, August-November 1773. So it occurred that the most momentous single item of the entire recovered store was not included in the subscription edition and is now for the first time printed.
Its momentousness arises out of its many and striking variations from the versions of A Tour to the Hebrides hitherto extant. Scott (who died without seeing the original text now given to the world) had been guided by internal and other evidences to the firm conviction that the Journal as published after Johnson’s death has been drastically revised by Edmund Malone, the fastidious Shakespearean commentator and editor. This conclusion was exactly and amply borne out by examination of the recovered manuscript: for the pages written by Boswell teem with the proofs, in Malone’s own hand, of Malone’s participation. The changes made in the original record by the co-editors were chiefly these: (1) The immediate purpose being commemoration of Johnson, Boswell’s many self-revelatory passages were deleted or much reduced. (2) Indelicacies were omitted. (3) Many invidious personal references and unflattering comments were excised or toned down (though not enough to keep Boswell from finding that he had some serious quarrels on his hands). (4) Boswell’s vividly specific details of meals, dress, manners, and what-not were converted into Malone’s briefer but tamer summaries in general terms. (5) Most important of all, the Journal was greatly abridged, especially in the second half, to meet certain exigencies of space. The new text, restored as nearly as is humanly possible to what was set down in the first place, shows the aggregate effect in a length roughly half again that of A Tour to the Hebrides as readers have known it for a century and a half.
It is no disparagement, on the score of either interest Or importance, to point out that the restored work enhances our knowledge of Johnson a great deal less than it does our knowledge of Johnson’s biographer. What we have, as a result of the six or seven score pages of new matter, is a self-portrait of Boswell; that is to say, of one of the most beguiling characters who ever lived. Without a vestige of pose or of self-importance, he is completely frank with us on topics about which virtually all other articulate men’s first instinct is to lie a little, even to themselves — his domestic affections, his periods of uxoriousness, his superstitions, his terrors during the rough passage from the Isle of Skye to Coll, his re-
current nocturnal dreads of nothing in particular, his moods of black depression. He had, quite without self-consciousness, some amazing streaks in his character of self-discipline, fortitude, and moral dignity. There has been of late years a long overdue reaction from the traditional view that what enabled Boswell to get along so well with Johnson was his own most contemptible and ridiculous qualities. The patent truth is that the secret lay in an ideal balance between clear-sighted appreciation of Johnson’s superiority in some particulars and his own tacit superiority in others. Rather often it was Johnson who played the indulged, spoiled child, while Boswell privately smiled at his antics, tenderly forgave him his domineering petulance, and let him have his own way without a grudge. Some of the younger man’s poise doubtless came of his professional training in the law, but much of it was innate largeness of mind. In the happily recovered portions of A Tour to the Hebrides Boswell’s side of the relationship is disclosed as nowhere else; and with the more perfect dignity because his own dignity is the last and least of his worries.