Saturday, September 17, 2016

Boswell, Johnson, and the Hebrides

I have wished now and then that Oxford University Press had kept in print R.W. Chapman's volume combining Samuel Johnson's A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland and Boswell's The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides. A couple of times I have seen this volume in a bookstore and considered buying it to send to my brother; but they were bookstores out of town, I didn't want to carry the book home, and he has gone without.

I have just learned what I should have known before, that Penguin Classics has long published the two works in one handy volume, edited by Peter Levi. It has the advantages of a smaller size and better notes. I wonder whether I mightn't have learned of it nearer the time of publication, 1984. But it was about then that I bought the Oxford Paperback printing.

The Penguin edition is 7.75 inches high, 5 inches wide, and not quite an inch thick. It will fit in a coat pocket. The Oxford Paperbacks edition is 3/8 of an inch thicker. It would fit in a pocket of the coat that Boswell writes of Johnson as wearing
with pockets that might have almost held the two volumes of his folio dictionary
but in none of mine.

The Oxford notes are only the footnotes of the original editions. Penguin has extensive end notes as well. Oxford may have thought it beneath its dignity to provide, or of its readers to have provided for them, translations of Latin tags from Virgil or Horace, or of the Latin poetry of Samuel Johnson and a Scot or two; Penguin, bless it, has no such reservations. Beyond that, the notes have useful information about persons well known (or not) in their time and unfamiliar now, identification of places, etc. They have the salt of strong and informed opinion, as a couple of times when Levi does not bother to translate the Latin: the inscription of a monument visited on 21st September "is not worth translating"; an ode by Dr. M'Pherson, mentioned on 28th September, consists of "[l]ame and thumping verses"--Boswell was not wholly correct when he introduces the ode with "My readers will probably not be displeased to have a specimen of this ode." A reader already familiar with the books will be tempted to read this edition by scanning the notes for a interesting entry and going back to the text it refers to.

Chapman's introduction concerns the writing and publication of the two books. Levi's is longer, with more about the background of the trip, the state of Scotland at the time, and the characters of the two authors. It strikes me as very good, and makes me regret the volume I had of the Penguin Classics Pausanius, also of Levi's editing, that fell apart and is gone.

I see two advantages to the Oxford edition: it has indexes of subjects, of persons and books, and of places; the table of contents to The Journal is in the old expansive style, and with Chapman's cross reference to A Journey, e.g.
August 24. Goldsmith and Graham. Slains Castle. Education of Children. Buller of Buchan. Entails. Consequence of Peers. Sir Joshua Reynolds. Earl of Errol . . . 220 [16]
(Boswell's entry for August 24 begins on page 220, and Johnson's chapter "Slanes Castle. The Buller of Buchan" begins on page 16.)

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