Nostalgic Correspondence and James Boswell's Scottish Malady

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In February 1763 the young James Boswell, then in London, dined with his friends Andrew Erskine and Thomas Sheridan. The conversation turned to the poetry of Ossian, who recently had been "discovered" in the Scottish Highlands by another acquaintance of Boswell's, James Macpherson. Sheridan, never shy with an extravagant opinion, asserted that Ossian was perhaps the greatest poet in the world since he "excelled Homer in the Sublime and Virgil in the Pathetic," and concluded that the poems Macpherson had found "give us great light into the history of mankind. We could not imagine that such sentiments of delicacy as well as generosity could have existed in the breasts of rude, uncultivated people." (1)

Boswell was not so sure; he writes that "Sheridan ... has an Irish wrongheadedness and a positive singularity that is very disgusting; and, for all that he says, I am apt to imagine that he has no real feeling of poetical beauty. I rather take him to be a man of very great art who wants to disguise it under the appearance of nature" (LJ, p. 183; my emphasis). Boswell's skepticism is noteworthy, since he is questioning not the sublime pathos of the poems, but rather the authenticity of Sheridan's taste. In Boswell's opinion, Sheridan would like to appropriate the social capital associated with having a spontaneous and sentimental literary taste and feeling, when in fact, his taste must have been cultivated--that is, developed through study, effort, and pretense. Boswell's comment becomes more suggestive, however, when we consider that this comment--a seemingly private sideswipe at a pompous Irishman--is not strictly private after all, since the journal in which Boswell writes would shortly be winding its way toward Scotland, for the delectation of Boswell's intimate friend, John Johnston of Grange.

I open with this incident--in which a Lowland Scot writes to a Highland Scot about an Irishman's opinion of poetry allegedly collected by another Highlander, and in which that Lowland Scot suggests that the Irishman has no real feeling or sentiment--because it suggests much about James Boswell's early writings, about Scottishness, and about spontaneous intimacy between men. This essay explores these questions by examining Boswell's letters to Grange, a man to whom Boswell, during his 1762-63 stay in London, sent his journal in weekly installments. And while the London Journal could be usefully reread in light of its epistolary and confessional nature, instead my focus will be on Boswell's correspondence with his Highland friend, with an emphasis on the cover letters that accompany the journals. These letters reveal Boswell's involvement with the rhetoric of a Scottish past--a past that Boswell understood as in many ways superior to his more ambiguous and artificial present, since it contained a plenitude, a spontaneity, and an unforced masculinity no longer available to a Scotsman or to anyone. Although the journals do allude to this mythos of an antique Scotland, it is in the correspondence with Grange that it plays its most important role, forming a kind of counterpoint to the Journal's exploration of English and British public identities. Like those public roles, Boswell's Scottish identifications in the correspondence are elusive, even haunting. And yet this very elusiveness is what makes Scottishness so useful to him. For Boswell's letters deploy this past--and, more specifically, the absence of this past and the acknowledgment of its unavailability--as a token of exchange and a mediating device to create the contexts of intimacy between himself and Grange. I am particularly interested in Boswell's attraction to spontaneity and, by extension, to midcentury discourses of sensibility, as well as to models of masculine feeling and male friendship that are closely associated with Scotland. Boswell's writings to Grange, above all else, cultivate a style of homosocial bonding mediated by a pervasive melancholy, a longing for an absent Scottish masculinity and spontaneity of feeling. …