There's something about Boswell

Levi Stahl

July 30, 2019

Walking the larger streets of London’s financial district, the City, you mostly see the contemporary: steel-and-glass office buildings, takeaway shops serving harried assistants, crowds of people in suits flowing in and out of Tube stations. Wander onto certain side streets, however, and that changes. Down one of those streets, just in from the river, a four-story house forms one end of the small Gough Square. From 1748 to 1759 Samuel Johnson, the essayist and lexicographer whose dictionary was the first serious attempt to catalog the English language and whose prose style and forceful personality defined the literary world of his time, lived in that house. It is now a modest museum, presenting a mix of period furniture and items that belonged to Johnson. Like many a house museum, it aims less to overwhelm visitors with collections than to put them in a place that conjures up the past, to say, “Here, on this spot, once stood greatness.” The floors creak. The stairs are worn. The rooms feel surprisingly small, in that way that the past so often does.

Because even the making of money from money takes breaks, weekend afternoons in the City find the crowds gone and the shops shut. A quiet settles on the streets. A few years back, I visited Johnson’s house on a Saturday. Standing alone in an upper room, I heard from the otherwise silent square below a sound that was simultaneously incongruous and magical: the clip-clop of hoofbeats on cobblestones. Instantly I was transported. In a rush of imagination, eighteenth-century London sprang up around me. A step to the window revealed a police horse, and the spell was broken. But the memory remained, a culmination of all my years of reading and thinking about the past, a shiveringly visceral answer to the question that animates me as a non-professional reader of history and biography: What was it like? For the briefest of moments, I felt as if I knew.

Part of the reason the Age of Johnson appeals to me is that it feels tantalizingly understandable — standing in Johnson’s house, I was able to instantly imagine myself into his time because we know so much about it: about the social and cultural life of London, the intellectual and literary and political struggles that shaped it and the individuals who animated them. It was the first age of broadly circulated print periodicals and an era of constant letter writing and detailed diary-keeping. We have intimate knowledge of its key figures (at least those who were among the elite), and a reader who delves into the shelves of biographies and histories of the period quickly begins to understand their interconnections and influences. It is easy to feel, with a confidence that is surely false but no less compelling for that, that we know these people.

All of which makes Leo Damrosch’s The Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped an Age nothing new, yet thoroughly welcome. It presents a group portrait of the period through close looks at a number of its leading personages. While the Club of the title makes sense as an organizing scheme, the book really is more a series of brief biographies, anchored in accounts of the lives of Johnson and James Boswell, his friend and biographer, and fleshed out with the stories of their circle.

Founded in 1764, the Club was the idea of Johnson’s friend Joshua Reynolds, the most successful portrait painter of his age, who was looking for a way to lift Johnson, then in his mid-fifties, out of one of his periodic fits of depression. In addition to Johnson and Reynolds, its initial membership included politician and writer Edmund Burke, playwright Oliver Goldsmith, physician Christopher Nugent, aristocrats Topham Beauclerk and Bennett Langton, musicologist John Hawkins, and stockbroker Anthony Chamier. While Burke, Reynolds, and Goldsmith are still known today, the others largely fall into a category that Virginia Woolf once defined in an essay about Boswell: “It is strange to reflect what numbers of men and women live in our minds merely because Boswell took a note of their talk.” The subsequently elected membership is similar: the names of actor and director David Garrick, historian Edward Gibbon, economist and philosopher Adam Smith, and Boswell sit alongside dozens of the now unknown.

What we learn from Damrosch about the Club’s weekly meetings at the Turk’s Head tavern is unsurprising: these educated and accomplished men, steeped in the conversational coffee house culture of their age, simply sat and drank and discussed all manner of subjects. While Boswell’s journals are what allow us to pull up a chair to the Club’s meetings, Damrosch fleshes those out nicely with records, drawn from diaries and correspondence, from the other members. Few things stale like recollected group conversation, however; were it not for these men’s illustrious careers, we might find little of value in reading of their evenings together. And the claim in the subtitle that the Club “shaped an age” is a bit of a stretch, attributing to the Club a disproportionate amount of the individual successes of the most prominent of its members. There’s no doubt, however, that at least early on, when the numbers were still modest, the Club fulfilled Reynolds’s primary goal. Johnson found the Club a congenial tonic for his frequent bouts of melancholy and was proud to be one of its members. And while James Boswell was wrong about many things in his rackety life, he was right about the most important one: When Samuel Johnson was part of a conversation, it was always worth listening.

Even so, the Club itself remains a bit ephemeral in these pages, serving as little more than the linchpin for the biographical stories Damrosch wants to tell. Half or more of the book consists of the lives of Johnson and Boswell. Anyone who’s read biographies of either (at least since Boswell began being taken more seriously by scholars decades ago) will find their stories familiar, though Damrosch is efficient and judicious with the telling, and frequently sparkles:

Boswell had a good voice and sang well. He was rightly proud of that, but unfortunately he fancied himself a poet, and would publish doggerel poems throughout his life. He thought his verses were extremely good; everyone else thought they were terrible. Everyone was right.

His account of David Garrick’s life includes a nicely compact explanation of Garrick’s theatrical innovations; from Joshua Reynolds’s life we learn about the work and conventions of society portraiture. Acknowledging that the all-male, all-white membership of the Club presents a skewed perspective on the social and cultural life of the period, Damrosch expands his circle to include Johnson’s dear friend Hester Thrale and novelist Frances Burney. He also is unusually diligent about noting the ever-present, hardly remarked-on army of servants when they leave ghostly traces in the margins of his source material. That alone is enough to make the book stand out. And there is value in grouping all these biographies together. As happens in any biography of Johnson or Boswell, but to a much greater degree, the larger social world comes into view. We begin to understand what life in these circles was like in the way that a solo biography could never enable us to do.

The result is a reminder of why we keep going back to this period and this place. London in the mid-eighteenth century feels simultaneously familiar and larger than life. The urban culture of coffee houses and pubs, newspapers and pamphlets, resonates with our own cacophonous age. The nobility and wealthy still ruled, but here and there talent could out — a bookseller’s son from Lichfield could make his way with his pen; a brilliant actor could elevate theater itself into an art. A mostly failed lawyer trying to replace his domineering father with a figure more congenial could find that man — and, in so doing, preserve one of the greatest voices and minds of Western culture.

Had Boswell never been born, we would nonetheless know many of these figures. Because of him, we know them with remarkable clarity. Add in the testimony of those around him, and deliver the whole into the hands of a writer like Leo Damrosch, and you’ve got a world brought to life.

Books in this review:
  • The Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped an Age
    by Leo Damrosch
    Yale University Press
    March 26, 2019
    488 pages
    Purchased by Reviewer
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Levi Stahl is the marketing director of the University of Chicago Press, the editor of The Getaway Car: A Donald E. Westlake Nonfiction Miscellany, and coeditor of The Daily Sherlock Holmes (forthcoming October 2019). He tweets, mostly about books.

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