Oct. 29, 2000

James Boswell

by Robert Hershon

Broadcast date: SUNDAY, 29 October 2000

Poem: "James Boswell," by Robert Hershon, from The German Lunatic (Hanging Loose Press).

James Boswell

I bought a copy of the London journal in a used-book store for a dollar. Boswell was new to London, I was new to San Francsisco. He was 21, I was 21. He met Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, and Joshua Reynolds. I met Burgundy Phil McGuire, Bad-Talking Charlie and Mad Marie. We were both pretty excited.

Every two or three years, Yale brought out a new volume (thank you, Professor Pottle) and Boswell and I started growing older together, keeping pace. He followed whores into the bushes in Hyde Park and often communed with the clap. I stared longingly at the hollow-eyed sweethearts of North Beach. He got married, I got married. He wrote an epic poem in praise of the goddess Ammonia. I didn't.

We grew into middle-age. He didn't get along with his father, who disapproved of his life. I didn't get along with my father, who had no idea what my life was, but that's another page in the journal, let it pass. Boswell died at 55. I didn't.

Years passed. Boswell's name went into the language, as a shadow, as a toady, as a lucky fool who wrote a great book somehow, chuckle and snort, a pest who was allowed to loiter in the corners. But Samuel Johnson loved the man. Never doubt my affection, sir, Sam Johnson wrote. Boswell's papers and journals were lost for many decades, but then they were found, in Irish barns and French fish markets. He began to come back to life.

Col. Ralph Isham, a gentleman collector, staked his fortune on the publication of Boswell's complete papers. He hired scholars and engaged printers and each time the edition was almost ready for the press, some farm hand found another trunk in a hayloft. More scholars, more delays, to protect the investment. Isham died broke. But thank you, say Professor Pottle and I.

Boswell was jealous, insecure, petty, pompous, lonely, obsessed, bored, horny, manic, guilty, trivial, convivial and frequently worried, thumbnail of a writer. His picture hangs above my desk. I love the man. When I first brought him to New York, he was displeased by the cramped taxis, the soggy weather and double-breasted suits, but he's come to be very fond of California cabernets, computer games and the novels of Henry James. This morning, I think he's up by the Javits Center, where the hookers work the trucks.

If you haven't done so already, it's time to turn back the clocks for the beginning of Standard Time. At 2:00 AM on the last Sunday of October each year, Daylight Savings Time ends and Standard Time resumes. The annual rituals of "springing forward" and "falling back" were established by the Uniform Time Act of 1966.

It's the anniversary of "Black Tuesday", the day in 1929 on which the Stock Market collapsed.

It's the birthday of American cartoonist (William Henry) Bill Mauldin, born in Mountain Park, New Mexico (1921).

It's the birthday of American comedian Fanny Brice, born on Manhattan's Lower East Side (1891).

It's the birthday of French novelist and playwright Jean Giraudoux, born in Bellac, France (1882). His best known works are The Tiger at the Gates (1935) and The Madwoman of Chaillot (1946).

On this date in 1787, Mozart conducted the first performance of his opera Don Giovanni, in Prague.

It's the birthday of Scottish biographer and diarist James Boswell, born in Edinburgh (1740). When he was twenty-two, he was introduced to Samuel Johnson, and they struck up an immediate friendship. Boswell successfully practiced law in Edinburgh, while continuing to cultivate the society of Samuel Johnson. In 1773, the two men went on a tour of the Hebrides together; Boswell's Journal of that tour was published to great acclaim in 1785, a year after Johnson's death. His most famous work, however, was the Life of Samuel Johnson, published in 1791.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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