Title: The Journal of a Tour to the Herbrides, With Samuel Johnson, Ll.d.; Containing Some Poetical Pieces by Dr. Johnson, Relative to the Tour, and Never Before Published; a Series of His Conversation, Literary Anecdotes and Opinions of Men and Books; With an Authentic Account of the Distresses and Escapes of the Grandson of King James Ii. in the Year 1746 Publisher: London: Office of the National illustrated library Subjects: Johnson, Samuel, 1709-1784 Hebrides (Scotland) -- Description and travel Scotland -- Description and travel Notes: This is an OCR reprint. There may be numerous typos or missing text. There are no illustrations or indexes. When you buy the General Books edition of this book you get free trial access to Million-Books.com where you can select from more than a million books for free. You can also preview the book there.
I'm not sure I've encountered so extreme an example before of reading something I initially thought detestable and then wound up shelving it among my favourites. Boswell's depiction of Samuel Johnson takes some initial getting used to, when Johnson comes across as full of hot air and voicing judgemental opinions that lack for evidence to back them up. It took me a while to realize Boswell worships the ground Johnson walks on and records virtually every insightful thing Johnson says, whatever the subject. I was trying to read the constant switches in topic as continuous conversation and getting frustrated, until I realized they aren't sewn together. After that I found some patience and was slowly won over. Johnson could quote erudite stuff like nobody's business and take any side of an argument for the sake of having one. It seems this was much admired in him. He didn't like to lose a debate, and would quickly switch to ridiculing the other's position if he felt in danger. Boswell quotes their contemporary Oliver Goldsmith who said there's no use arguing with Johnson, since if he fails to shoot you with his pistol (metaphorically) he'll just knock you down with the butt end of it.
Boswell indicates that Johnson read his journal entries as he wrote them, but still doesn't shy from stating where he thinks Johnson was wrong about something he said or did. Sometimes Johnson consequently adds further comments, which Boswell dutifully records. Sometimes Boswell praises Johnson for letting something pass. It's all so layered. There's occasional commentary by Boswell on Johnson's earlier account, offering backing or clarification. It's a reminder that records like these can only be interpreted within the limits of what the author chooses to tell, and shines a light on the value gained by having the two accounts to compare. Boswell earns credit for how well they complement one another, but read Johnson's account first to appreciate it.
Boswell's Tour is something of a literary breakthrough. At the time it was not considered good manners to be too specific about ones personal habits but Boswell often talks about seemingly mundane things that for a modern reader would seem normal in a travelogue but for the day was scandalous. Boswell repeated conversations with well known figures that didn't portray them in a glowing light and this resulted in years of tit-for-tat newspaper editorial attacks and defenses. Later editions would include letters, apologies and defenses. Today with all the personalities long dead it seems like a Hollywood tabloid. In the context of the times, Johnson and Boswell were seen by some critics as outsiders gatecrashing the establishment - Johnson was a provincial "hack" as one Londoner called him, and Boswell was Scottish, damning enough on its own, but with a personal reputation as a "rouge" (ladies man) and heavy drinker (demons that would follow him to the grave). However their reputations as towering figures of the Enlightenment would soon be solidified, further increasing the popularity of this book.
As a work of literature Boswell's account is warm and endearing. Johnson and Boswell are Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, respectively. Boswell at once mythologizes Johnson hanging on his every word, a great master who can say no falsehood, and at the same time makes him into a lovable blundering traveler. Certainly Charles Dickens' Mr. Pickwick of the Pickwick Papers was influenced by Boswell's Johnson. As travel literature Boswell's observations of Scottish life are valuable. Boswell had an excellent memory and kept a daily diary so we have very exact details of food and conversation, although Boswell did not think much of scenery or geography.
Tour to the Hebrides was a best-seller from its first publication and is still widely read. Its influence is probably hard to quantify, it was partly responsible for popularizing the English tradition of traveling to Scotland which would be so common among the literary set in the late 18th and 19th centuries (and to this day). One can only wonder how many travelers have re-traced Johnson and Boswell on a literary vacation. In the early 20th century a cache of Boswell's unpublished papers were discovered in a castle, among them the complete unedited manuscript of the Tour. This was published in 1936, it is substantially different, with many passages cut from the original restored, it is the better and recommended.
In the Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, Boswell successfully brought together his two worlds—that of Scotland and that of London. Samuel Johnson is a microcosm of London—with its sophistication, its mental energy, its style, and its prejudices. Boswell was able to bridge, reconcile, and even merge the two worlds by his unwavering reverence for Johnson, and his unshakable belief in the essential goodness of his native Scotland and its inhabitants. Boswell did not try to explain away Johnson’s idiosyncrasies (or even his faults) as somehow the result of some misunderstanding on the part of their Scottish interlocutors, and he did not try to disguise the nature of the Scots to Johnson. Boswell also was not embarrassed by the impression Johnson made on the Scots, nor the Scots on Johnson. He simply let everyone be who they were, and assumed the best on everyone’s part. Boswell clearly embodies the best of both worlds.
The book is charming in the anecdotes and the reported conversations. I did have much difficulty in distinguishing many of the Scots from one another, as they almost all seemed to be named Mr. M’Leod. However, that probably could not much be helped as the clan name was (is?) so prevalent in the Western islands of Scotland. It was of much interest to see how important the concept of hospitality was important in those days before instant communication. The travelers could expect to have meals and lodging provided by their social peers wherever they happened to travel. This book does not provide many descriptions of the geography or scenery of the Hebrides, but is more a memorandum of those with whom Boswell and Johnson dined, and stayed, and conversed. It would be fun while traveling in Scotland in the twenty first century to have a companion book setting out the route and the stopping places mentioned in the Journal, with references to the particular passages referring to each place, annotated for what has happened to any landmarks that are no longer there, or are substantially modified.
Though Boswell is frequently able to see Johnson's shortcomings, he is almost never critical, but simply treats them as part and parcel of Dr. Johnson's brilliance. This may be accurate, but the lack of personal judgement from Boswell makes him out to be a borderline sycophant.
All this being said, one interested in this period in British history, or a contemporaneous record of Boswell and Johnson, or if one simply enjoys an imaginary trip through wild Scotland of the 18th century, this is a very good read. Boswell shares the small and the mundane along with the surprising and enlightening. I was left with a strong urge to personally follow in Boswell and Johnson's footsteps to see just how much has changed, and how much remains of their Scotland.
The book is more about Johnson than Scotland, but still makes fascinating reading almost 250 years later.
Read April 2017
What I recollect best is the occasional amazing behaviour of Johnson, for instance upon his arrival in Edinburgh, when he settles in an inn and sends a note to Boswell to let him know his arrival. We learn afterwards that Johnson was scandalized by the inn waiter's using his fingers to put a lump of sugar in the lemonade Johnson had ordered. Apparently he would have liked to smash him against the wall for daring doing this.
Boswell also made me laugh with his report of the last breakfast they had in the Isles. The house lady asked Boswell who was first up, if Johnson would like to have a cold mutton head for breakfast. Her husband was horrified and tried to persuade her that it was not suitable. But Boswell very maliciously replied that yes, why not, although he knew in advance what would be Johnson's reaction. Then he sat in an armchair and took a book for a countenance. When Johnson came down from his bedroom, he first replied 'No' to the question 'Dr Johnson, have you taken some cold mutton head?'. But, as the house lady misunderstood the answer and insisted, he had to be ruder. In his armchair behind his book, Boswell was smiling.
It seemed really fine to travel as they did in the islands and to go from castle to castle—visibly without spending much money. As with Johnson's Journal, this book really incites one to follow the same itinerary to tour the western Isles.