Book Review: Boswell’s London Journal
Edited by Gordon Turnbull
Penguin Classics, 2010
A scrupulous, groundbreaking, historic feat of literary editing is a joyous thing, like a gift to the reading world. When such a literary feat also becomes a best-seller, the charm is doubled. After the 1762-63 London journals of James Boswell were discovered in 1930 and collated, packaged, sold, re-sold, annotated, and re-annotated, they fell into the editorship of Frederick Pottle and became just such a literary gift, selling ferociously and getting translated into dozens of languages. Yale University made a deal with Signet and New American Library, a sturdy paperback was issued, and in 1950, James Boswell became a celebrity in his own right 190 years after he put quill to paper.
He’d already been a reflected celebrity, of course, the world’s foremost. In 1791 he published his massive, ebulliently unique The Life of Samuel Johnson, the vast and variable wonderland of a book that made Boswell’s Johnson immortal and became overnight a permanent glory of English letters. Thus it was already known that Boswell was a delightfully readable author; what the London Journal proved was that he could also be a delightfully readable subject.
He was encouraged to keep his journal by the most unimpeachable source:
And now, O my journal! art thou not highly dignified? Shalt thou not flourish ten-fold? No solicitations or censures could tempt me to lay thee aside; and now is there any argument which can outweigh the sanction of Mr. Samuel Johnson?
But he would have done it anyway (he had an almost pitiable compulsion for prose), and even in later life when he made half-hearted attempts to be morally upstanding, he often found himself re-reading his account of those days of his 22-year-old youth, those proud, cocky entries about boozy ale-houses and floozy Covent Garden actresses. On some level he recognized the irresistibility of the book, and Professor Pottle recognized it, and once he’d dressed it in just enough notes to smooth its edges, he published it, and the thankful public recognized it.
So: a joyous thing, yes – and, one might think, all the more deadly to the improver’s touch. Gordon Turnbull, the current general editor of Yale Editions of the Private Papers of James Boswell, must know this peril better than anybody; indeed, in his Acknowlegements for the 2010 Penguin Classics volume of the London Journals, before he even gets around to thanking people, he stares it straight in the face:
To re-edit the manuscript used for so admired a volume as Frederick A. Pottle’s frequently reissued worldwide bestseller of 1950 was (to borrow the opening of Boswell’s Life of Johnson) an arduous and may be reckoned in me a presumptuous task.
He keeps his editorial aims appealingly modest (“correction in places in which Pottle’s edition erred, and the filling-in of matters it passed over in editorial silence”), but his work has been vast: in addition to a time-line and full index, his edition has 210 pages of small-typed end-notes (Pottle’s version had footnotes only, and taken all together they couldn’t exceed 20 pages), providing far, far more detail on every conceivable textual subject than Pottle ever thought necessary. The reason for this, of course, is that in Pottle’s day it wasn’t necessary; readers of half a century ago were generally more capable than their modern counterparts, and incoming college English majors were handed a hard amount of work to do, not a pre-warmed bottle of formula and a pristine copy of Things Fall Apart. To contend with this sea-change, Turnbull has produced a marvel of annotation, the kind of critical apparatus that’s a joy to read in its own right.
That joy, however, is naturally secondary to the endlessly fascinating burblings of our young diarist, who (not to denigrate Turnbull’s accomplishment here) would easily steal the center stage even in an edition with – the mind boggles – no notes at all. When this Boswell, little more than a boy, already thoroughly clapped, forever striving with his imperious father back in Scotland, writes at one point “I am scrupulous to a nicety about truth,” we know immediately that he is a bit of a fool and that we shall love him. He manages always to be both intimate and theatrical:
Sunday 13 February :
This was a most terrible day. None of my friends could come abroad to see me. I was really a good deal low-spirited all the forenoon. In the Evening my mind cleared up. I was pleased and lively, and my Genius was in fine humour for composition. I wrote several fancifull little Essays which pleased me highly. Well, the human mind is really curious: I can answer for my own. For here now in the space of a few hours, I was a dull & a miserable, a clever and a happy mortal, and all without the intervention of any external cause, except a dish of green tea …
Throughout this edition, Turnbull has done the impossible: he has (quietly, modestly) improved on Pottle in so many ways the reader begins to lose count. Pottle regularized Boswell’s spelling; Turnbull returns it to its often chaotic original state. Pottle buried the telegraphic and revealing ‘memoranda’ Boswell made in advance of each day’s entry in footnotes (when he mentioned them at all); Turnbull puts them ahead of each entry to which they correspond. Pottle allowed some of the many bowdlerizations performed by Boswell’s scandalized descendants to stand; Turnbull banishes as many of them as careful textual recovery will allow. And so on.
The end result of all these labors is a London Journal that will shine for a century, perhaps for all time. Things have changed from the days when such an edition might become a bestseller; since Turnbull has declined to introduce zombies into his text, it will remain a backlist staple. It’s none the less worthy of your attention, for all that – more so, in fact. Enthusiastically recommended.