"James Boswell and the Uses of Criticism" argues that Boswell's London Journal offers a unique perspective on the social dynamics of printed criticism. Though unconventional and at first glance self-defeating, publishing was crucial to Boswell's project of social self-advancement. Scurrilous and surreptitious, collaborative and confrontational, Boswell's brief (and mostly ignominious) career as a critic in London throws into sharp relief the way criticism could be used, not to regulate the taste of an impersonal public, but to mediate relationships between authors.
I congratulate with my country, that we now behold, with eyes full of intrepid wonder and premature astonishment, such a poet! and such critics!
--James Boswell, of himself and his friends, to Andrew Erskine (1)
By the middle of the eighteenth century, the editors and book reviewers of periodicals such as the Critical Review and the Monthly Review had begun to establish themselves as spokesmen for a commercialized public taste. (2) Printed criticism remained factional and fractious, as critics used their new forum to launch personal attacks, to coalesce into literary circles, and to further their own careers. Although criticism sometimes appealed for consensus across a broad, nationalized audience of British readers, it was also a language of friendship and confrontation that writers used to speak for and against each other. The back-and-forth of critical argument wrapped authors in a web of texts that situated them among their fellows: to participate in these exchanges was to be a member of a world of London letters. In this essay, I argue that James Boswell's early publishing career, described in his London Journal, offers a unique perspective on these social dynamics of printed criticism. Those interested in Boswell's literary life have tended to focus on how he cultivated acquaintances with luminaries such as Samuel Johnson. However, I argue that publishing was crucial to Boswell's project of self-advancement, no matter how unconventional or self-defeating such advancement might seem at first glance. Scurrilous and surreptitious, collaborative and confrontational, Boswell's early criticism stirs up controversy among his contemporaries for little reason except to make him known as one of the controversialists. Boswell's brief (and mostly ignominious) career as a critic in London throws into sharp relief the way criticism could be used not to regulate the taste of an impersonal public but to mediate relationships between authors.
In recent years, studies have shown in various ways that criticism played a crucial role in the construction of eighteenth-century literary culture. Scholars have focused on the rise of criticism as a discipline, on its role in the formation of national literary canons, on its function as a regulatory discourse of taste, and, in Lee Morrissey's recent study, on critics' efforts to order politicized reading practices. (3) What these studies have in common is that they take criticism to be a print phenomenon that acts upon a public readership. Others have turned away from printed criticism to focus instead on manuscript "critical practices" as techniques of "social authorship." (4) Such studies highlight the continuing importance of coterie circulation as a social practice by contrasting it with the commercial publicity of print. In Social Authorship and the Advent of Print, Margaret Ezell writes, "[W]e are still in the dark concerning the practices of authors who sought a publisher but not an income from writing. We are still in the process of constructing a history of the social text, as it existed in its original context and social moment and then as it moved into print culture." (5) The largely unspoken premise here is that manuscript is the locus of a text's "original context and social moment," while "print culture" is a secondary place of commercial appropriation. Criticism works against such assumptions--both criticism in general and Boswell's specifically. The Journal offers an illuminating perspective on this point because it narrates in detail Boswell's use of printed criticism as an instrument of socialization. Though ostensibly national in their address, Boswell's publications playfully spoke to more particular readerships, and they had very high personal stakes precisely because of their public character.
For Boswell, criticism was both a way to participate in a public of fellow Londoners and a way to insert himself into a distinct culture of London letters. Just two months after his arrival in the capital, Boswell joined his friends Andrew Erskine and George Dempster in attending a new play, Elvira: A Tragedy. The play was written by David Mallet, a Scottish author who they felt had betrayed Scotland by assimilating into English society too completely. Among other offenses, Mallet "Englished" his name from David Malloch. Boswell and his crew were eager to disrupt the play's first performance, and he describes their efforts in the pit: "[J]ust as the doors opened at four o'clock, we sallied into the house, planted ourselves in the middle of the pit, and with oaken cudgels in our hands and shrill-sounding catcalls in our pockets, sat ready prepared." (6) Thus armed, the young men self-consciously enact the part of the ill-natured critics: "The prologue was politically stupid. We hissed it and had several join us" (p. 155). Unfortunately, their attempt to disrupt the play finds little support beyond those few: "We did what we could during the first act, but found that the audience had lost their original fire and spirit and were disposed to let it pass. Our project was therefore disconcerted, our impetuosity damped. As we knew it would be needless to oppose that furious many-headed monster, the multitude, as it has been very well painted, we were obliged to lay aside our laudable undertaking in the cause of genius and the cause of modesty" (p. 155).
Unbowed by this failure, Boswell joined Erskine and Dempster in a written critique of the play, one that would extend their attacks into print: "After dinner, Erskine produced our observations on Elvira thrown into a pamphlet size. We corrected it, and I copied it out" (p. 162). Critical Strictures on the New Tragedy of Elvira, Written by Mr. David Malloch (1763) is a very small work of only twenty-four pages octavo and priced at six pence. Besides mocking his name change, the authors associate Mallet with profiteering and a depraved public taste. They write, "Bad as this Play is, yet will the Author have the Profits of his Three Nights: Few on the First Night having either Taste or Spirit to express their Disapprobation. Like the Rascals who plundered Lisbon after the Earthquake, Mr. David Malloch will extract his Guineas out of Rubbish." (7) Their tone is unrelenting in its viciousness. They focus in particular on Mallet's Scottishness:
In this Play the Author has introduced a Rebellion unparalleled in any History, Ancient or Modern. He raises his Rebellions as a skillful Gardener does his Mushrooms, in a Moment; and like an artful Nurse, he lulls in a Moment the fretful Child asleep. The Prince enters an Appartment of the Palace with a drawn Sword; this forms the Rebellion. The King enters the same Appartment without a drawn Sword. This quashes the Rebellion. How to credit this Story, or to pardon this poetical Licence, we are greatly at a Loss; for we know in the Year 1745 three thousand Mountaineers actually appeared at Derby. Cataline, we are credibly informed, had a Gang of at least a Dozen stout Fellows; and it is pretty certain that Bedemar, when going to inslave Venice, had provided Pistols and Battle Powder for more than fifteen fighting Men. We are almost tempted to think, that Mr. Malloch gets his Rebellions ready made, like his Scotch Tobacco, cut and dry, at the Sign of the Valiant Highlander. (8)
This attack synthesizes commentary on the literary tradition with contemporary identity politics. The critics begin with degrading comparisons that associate Mallet's writing with menial household labor. They sharply contrast his play to two tragedies of failed rebellion prominent in the English literary tradition, Ben Jonson's Catiline and Thomas Otway's Venice Preserved. The casual tone with which they treat these figures heightens the contrast. The critics assure us that Catiline armed "at least a Dozen stout Fellows" and that the Marquis of Bedmar--the Spanish ambassador behind a 1618 plot to overthrow the Republic of Venice--provided weapons for "more than fifteen fighting Men." (9) Unable to stage such violence convincingly, Mallet's Elvira is a debased parody of this tradition. If the elevation of a literary canon depends on demarcating other texts as noncanonical, as literary theorists have suggested. Critical Strictures exemplifies one way for this to happen: the angry critics here use tradition to show that Mallet fails to measure up. (10) Boswell and his collaborators then associate the play's inauthentic staging with Mallet's supposedly inauthentic ethnicity. (11) "[W]e know in the Year 1745 three thousand Mountaineers actually appeared at Derby," they insist, contrasting the play's obvious artificiality with the actual appearance of Scottish rebels during a moment of intense suspense during the 1745 uprising. That year, Prince Charles had advanced within a hundred miles of London, and, although his army had been reduced by desertions, they presented for the moment a very real danger to the English capital. The legacy of Derby would be tragic to Scottish Jacobites, however. The Pretender's force was divided by faction and the rebels chose to withdraw, only to be defeated at the Battle of Culloden. Elvira's actions lack such drama, according to its critics. Mallet's rebellions, they suggest, come "ready made, like his Scotch Tobacco, cut and dry, at the Sign of the Valiant Highlander." This final thrust of wit impugns Mallet for being severed from Scottish history and society, to which he is connected only through a commercial mediation that cheapens national identity by using it as an advertising gimmick.
Such satiric, associative juxtapositions serve several purposes. First of all, they attack Mallet concisely on several different grounds. The fact that these attacks are personal and unjustified makes them all the more effective at setting up their authors as rivals to the more established, but reportedly unpopular, Mallet. (12) As these juxtapositions accumulate through amplification, they also put on display the authors' nationalistic passions, their knowledge of traditional English drama, and, most importantly, their facility for wit. In these ways, Critical Strictures identifies its authors quite firmly as Scots of facetious wit and sharp temperament in the midcentury London world of letters. They fuse personal attack with literary and political critique in order to raise the ethical stakes of their pamphlet: what might have been a mere matter of disagreement about a play becomes a public confrontation between enemies, with Boswell and his collaborators cast as impudent provocateurs.
The point here is not that Boswell's, Erskine's, and Dempster's critiques of the play and of Mallet were either fair or thoughtful. Indeed, the opposite was obviously the case. According to all evidence, Elvira was a success, both commercially and critically. The play enjoyed an unusually long thirteen-night run, and the London Chronicle reported after its opening that the whole performance gave general satisfaction." (13) Lengthy selections and summaries appeared in the Universal Magazine, the Gentleman's Magazine, and the London Magazine. (14) It received begrudging respect in Ralph Griffith's Monthly Review, (15) as well as fulsome praise in Tobias Smollett's Critical Review: "Mr. Mallet's character, as a dramatic writer, is so well established, that it could not have been affected by the fate of this performance, even if it had miscarried. Neither has the extraordinary success of it, in the face of a most illiberal opposition, been able to enhance the reputation he had before so justly acquired." (16) Notice that, just like Strictures, the review is deeply invested in discussing Mallet's character and his reputation. Once caught up in the interplay between poet and attacking critics, the problem of evaluating a text becomes inextricably tied to the problem of evaluating the conflict it inspired. The back-and-forth of critical disagreement heightens the visibility of the "illiberal opposition," a position that Boswell and his friends were eager to occupy.
Texts such as Critical Strictures defy easy generalization about their reception. Because it was so deliberately sophomoric in tone, the rebukes that the pamphlet received from the reviews are evidence of success rather than failure. Boswell's, Erskine's, and Dempster's goal was to spark a controversy, and so the disapproval that met their pamphlet represents not a failure to adhere to the norms of critical writing but the effectiveness with which they flouted those norms. The Monthly Review speculated it to be the work of a "personal enemy of Mr. Mallet," while the Critical Review wrote it off in just one sentence, calling it "the crude efforts of envy, petulance, and self-conceit." (17) Boswell was thrilled. As he would write in The Life of Samuel Johnson, L. L. D., "There being thus three epithets, we, the three authours, had a humourous contention how each should be appropriated." (18) That he did not resent the insult is unsurprising. The pamphlet is clearly intended to provoke a negative reaction, and there is nothing in Boswell's journal to suggest otherwise.
In fact, it was precisely on the grounds of their lack of prestige--their exclusion from learned, gentlemanly respectability--that Boswell positioned himself three weeks later when he initiated a correspondence with David Hume. As part of a fairly dismal practical joke, Erskine and Dempster appropriated Hume's identity in a forged letter to Boswell. After sulking briefly, Boswell turned the situation to his advantage by using it as an excuse to send the philosopher-historian a letter of introduction. The tone of his address balances self-effacing embarrassment for having been duped with playful self-flattery. The letter concludes with this postscript: "If you will agree to correspond with me, you shall have London news, lively fancies, humorous sallies, provided that you give me elegant sentiments, just criticism, and ingenious observations on human nature. I should gladly endeavour to return you now and then something in your own style, which I am ambitious enough not to despair of doing" (pp. 193-4). By offering to trade his "humorous sallies" for Hume's "elegant sentiments," Boswell predicates his appeal to Hume on a kind of division of labor in their correspondence, one that reaffirms the hierarchical difference between the two men while bringing them together within a more general conversational sociability. Boswell is a young man of wit, a man to be counted on for humorous critiques, while the more learned and celebrated author provides the "ingenious observations" of high cultural commentary. This point is worth stressing, because some recent scholars have emphasized other moments when Boswell chafed under the influence of more powerful men during his stay in London. (19) Here, Boswell accepts subordination within a hierarchy of critical style that affords him the ambition to rise at some later time.
However, rather than offer elevated discourse, Hume's reply is angry and condescending. He took umbrage for having been cited as an authority in Critical Strictures. Among their attacks on Mallet, the youthful collaborators cited a conversation in which Hume claimed that Mallet's plays were "destitute of the Pathetic." (20) Hume takes them to task for the indiscretion: "I repeat it, how the devil came it into your noddles to publish in a book to all the world what you pretend I told you in private conversation? I say pretend I told you; for as I have utterly forgot the whole matter, I am resolved utterly to deny it. Are you not sensible that by this etourderie, to give it the lightest name, you were capable of making a quarrel between me and that irascible little man with whom I live in very good terms? Do you not feel from your own experience that among us gentlemen of the quill there is nothing of which we are so jealous (not even our wives, if we have any) as the honour of our productions?" (pp. 206-7). Instead of feeling chastised, Boswell and his friends are encouraged by this reply, which, Boswell feels, is "so good-natured as to lighten his reproof by blending it with an agreeable pleasantry" (p. 207). It is little wonder that Boswell was pleased. Besides acknowledging their acquaintance, the reply makes clear that Hume shares at least some of their disdain for Mallet by calling him "irascible." Best of all, it gathers them all under the shared category, "gentlemen of the quill." Boswell's response to this complaint continues the tone of raillery and expresses pleasure for having caused dissension (pp. 208-9). The letter is signed "Boswell & Co." (p. 209). All in all, Boswell and his friends seemed to have considered Critical Strictures a success, in part because of the disapproving responses it generated. Boswell & Co. had officially entered the London world of wit, and, as far as Boswell was concerned, they had it on David Hume's authority that they counted as "gentlemen of the quill."
To see Critical Strictures as a success in this way demands setting aside the concerns that traditionally occupy historians of literary criticism. Critical Strictures is typical of its genre, and attack pamphlets such as this are generally considered too transparent to invite or validate close study. Not surprisingly, it has received little attention from Boswell scholars, even those who portray him as a literary critic. (21) Indeed, a personal attack such as the one Boswell & Co. offered Mallet is very different from works that contribute to a philosophy or history of literature, such as Lord Karnes's Elements of Criticism (1762). The young collaborators added nothing to their culture's understandings of drama, literature, or aesthetics in any general sense. Nor was it their intent to do so. In the brief space of the pamphlet, they cite numerous authorities, including Sir David Dalrymple, Johnson, John Dryden, Lord Bolingbroke, Joseph Addison, and of course Hume. This existing tradition of authoritative critics is deployed selectively to cast their target in as unfavorable a light as possible. Nowhere do the authors use their ostensible object--the tragedy Elvira--to question, revise, or in any way contribute to this tradition. The pamphlet's form and price suggest that it will be, if too scurrilous to be called modest, at least limited in its intellectual ambitions.
Attack pamphlets work differently from the essays and treatises usually gathered into a history of British criticism and aesthetics. They operate according to a different "psychodynamics of writing," to borrow a phrase from Walter J. Ong, who asserts that "the writer's audience is always fiction" and that each act of reading and writing fictionalizes a social interaction between readers and writers. (22) For Boswell and his collaborators, their piece of criticism was not an intervention into a history of criticism. Boswell & Co. do not address an audience of fellow thinkers, nor an imagined series of author figures structured according to a canon of criticism. Rather, their fictionalized audience involves both a network of friends and rivals, centered in this case on Mallet himself (who has his own network of friends to be disrupted) and a public audience of anonymous book buyers. The work's unabashed publicity gives it rhetorical force within the narrower realms of personal acquaintance. In the journal, Boswell describes his six-penny pamphlet specifically as an extension of the critical work that their noisy disruptiveness in the pit failed to complete. If they could not prevent Elvira from gaining its third night, this thinking goes, then a print attack might disrupt Mallet's literary friendships. In this way, the pit and the pamphlet share a common structure in their public address: attack criticism imagines itself as an exchange between critic and target that, because performed before an audience, will entail personal consequences outside the critical exchange itself.
The literary misadventures of Boswell & Co. exemplify in many ways the new possibilities opened up to Scottish authors by the establishment of publishing partnerships across Britain. Richard Sher has recently shown how a cadre of Scottish entrepreneurs transformed the British book trade by forging collaborative business relationships between the publishing centers of London and Edinburgh. (23) Besides protecting publishers from inordinate losses by diluting capital expenditure, such collaboration enabled booksellers to divide their efforts regionally. This simplified booksellers' relationships with authors and with customers while helping them to avoid competitive reprinting. (24) Sher's study exposes the interpersonal, even intimate, nature of this practice. Entrepreneurs such as Alexander Donaldson, Andrew Millar, and William Strahan succeeded because they were able to establish and maintain trustworthy social networks across national barriers. For eighteenth-century Scots, these interpersonal networks had profound effects: first, they encouraged travel to and from London; second, they offered financial and cultural opportunities for Scots living in a foreign and sometimes-hostile land; and, third, they provided access to an increasingly powerful communication technology. (25)
In the early 1760s, Boswell's most important relationship in the trade was with Alexander Donaldson, the Edinburgh bookseller who would become famous for his legal disputes with the London establishment. During this time, though, Donaldson worked in loose collaboration with Robert and James Dodsley, who served as the London distributors of his second collection of Scottish poetry, for which he invited the young Boswell to correct sheets. (26) Dodsley published Boswell's first London poem, The Cub, at New-market (1762), at the author's expense, and in 1763 Donaldson introduced Boswell and Erskine to the booksellers on Paternoster Row: "He engaged [them] to befriend us. In these matters the favour of the trade (as the booksellers call themselves) is a prodigious point" (p. 240).
Printed criticism organizes relationships across these book-trade networks by signaling alliances and rivalries. When it came to publishing Critical Strictures, Boswell & Co. avoided the prominent, established London booksellers. After all, Mallet's play Elvira was published by Andrew Millar, a leading figure in the London-Edinburgh publishing axis. (27) Mallet was noted, with Hume, among Millar's circle of literary counselors, and the volume was dedicated to none other than the Scottish Lord Bute. (28) For their pamphlet attack, Boswell chose William Flexney, a relatively minor figure known in London as the bookseller of satirist Charles Churchill. Boswell records the decision in his journal: "We resolved to take it to Flexney, near Gray's Inn, Holborn, who, being Mr. Churchill's bookseller, was well-known ... We explained our business, and he readily undertook it" (p. 162). By publishing Critical Strictures through Flexney, Boswell & Co. placed their first foot in the door of a complex web of relationships among journalists, poets, and booksellers. Flexney was a marginal figure in the Nonsense Club, a loosely formed literary and libertine association centered on John Wilkes, Churchill, and Bonnell Thornton. (29) The literary partnerships of Thornton, Churchill, Wilkes, and George Colman were models that Boswell and Erskine deliberately sought to emulate while in Scotland. (30) Besides publishing popular poetic works such as Churchill's The Rosciad, Flexney's shop sold Thornton's current periodical, The St. James Chronicle. (31) During this time, Boswell was an avid reader of The North-Briton, a stridently anti-administration newspaper written collaboratively by Wilkes and Churchill. The North-Briton was sold by George Kearsley, who partnered with Flexney and others in 1763 to publish a large quarto edition of Churchill's collected works. (32) Further, Boswell and Erskine had good reason to believe their attack on Mallet would be welcome in this group: on 20 January, the same day they approached Flexney about publishing their Strictures, a dismissive and satiric review of the play appeared in Thornton's and Flexney's St, James Chronicle. (33)
Thus, the pamphlet was just one salvo in a larger system of partisan publishing that included poetry and periodicals. Less than a month later, Boswell began work on a more ambitious publication that would extend his participation in this system. Letters between the Honourable Andrew Erskine and James Boswell, Esq. is a neatly printed, compact octavo volume of 158 pages, priced initially at three shillings. (34) It includes forty-two letters, dated from August 1761 to November 1763, the last narrating Boswell's arrival in London, making it a sort of prehistory to the journal. In their mix of poetry and prose, Letters tells the story of two young aspiring poets, aspiring men of wit and men of letters. Rhetorically, they employ many of the same techniques used in Critical Strictures. In particular, Erskine and Boswell accumulate facetious metaphors in order to create, according to Thomas Crawford, "an effect of exuberant energy by piling up parallel phrases." (35) Throughout, they comment on each other's letter writing and on famous printed works (including a statement of praise, added to the print edition, for Churchill's Rosciad). (36) They describe their appearances in newspapers and pamphlets, and they discuss sending books by the post. They discuss at length their own adventures into print--between them, they mention Donaldson and Dodsley no fewer than twenty-eight times over just forty-two letters. The Cub, At New-market is a frequent topic of comment as are their contributions to Donaldson's collections. In its theme, form, and distribution. Letters represents Boswell's and Erskine's emergence in London as authors and, in James J. Caudle's words, Boswell's "projected metamorphosis from a provincial Scottish boy-poet and theatre critic into a cosmopolite and London wit." (37)
Of particular note is the way Boswell and Erskine provoke family and acquaintances through strategic violations of propriety. As I have argued, much of Critical Strictures's purpose was to set up its authors to be judged as wits or fools or both. Letters extends this project even more effectively, branding its authors men of impudence and imprudence. Filled with personal and sometimes embarrassing reflections, the text's collective authorial persona is a type in direct opposition to the man of mature respectability. As his correspondent John Johnston had warned him and as he and Erskine anticipated, Boswell's father expressed dismay at the publication. (38) Boswell's friend and would-be patron Lord Eglinton, earlier embarrassed to be included in The Cub, At New-market, worried that Boswell was endangering his position in London society by continuing to print: "Upon my soul, Jamie, I would not take the direction of you upon any account, for as much as I like you, except you would agree to give over that damned publishing. Lady N--would as soon have a raven in her house as an author" (p. 241n1). Hugh Blair expressed disapprobation, worried that those outside the authors' direct acquaintance would see Boswell and Erskine as "two vain, forward young men that would be pert and disagreeable." (39) Predictably, when Boswell and Erskine opened the Critical Review on 1 June, they found that it questioned their sense of propriety and their poetic talents and that it compared their witticisms to a joke gone flat because taken out of context: "Our reader will easily [see] the vast effect which the least alteration of circumstances has to the prejudice of those tender and volatile qualities true wit and humour. Hence it is, that a thing at one time may be very lively, and at another very insipid." (40) This point--that the effectiveness of wit varies widely according to the context of its utterance--strikes to the very heart of what Boswell and Erskine were doing with their publication. While offering their private wit to an anonymous public across England and Scotland, the pair simultaneously performed their lack of discretion across the various interpersonal networks of acquaintance and family within which they were bound. The playful naughtiness of a text such as Letters comes from the way it exploits the tension between these kinds of publicity.
Although Letters was specifically designed to spark disapproval from sources such as fathers and unfriendly literary reviewers, the hope was that others with a greater taste for frivolity would appreciate the writers' stylistic mastery all the more for their rhetorical temerity. This hope can be seen clearly in a review written anonymously by Boswell, which appeared in the London Chronicle. After praising the collection for "flashes of genuine wit and humour," Boswell concludes, "And although the cynical part of mankind may accuse them of vanity, yet we will venture to say, that there are few people who would not have been equally vain, had they written letters of equal merit." (41) They received other applause as well. The Monthly Review praised the collection and described Boswell and Erskine in encouraging, if somewhat condescending, terms: "They are pretty fellows in literature; and must not be roughly dealt with." (42) The various characterizations that Boswell accrued in the early months of 1763 are striking for their broad similarity, despite the diametrically opposed stances of his commentators: pretty, vain, pert, illiberal, envious, self-conceited, and petulant. Whether coming from the Critical Review or from Boswell himself, the language used to describe him consistently highlights his role as a particular kind of publishing author: the vain upstart. This was perhaps an odd choice for a subject position, but by exploiting the productive potential of critical antagonism, Boswell created a context in which he could be legible to a new audience of readers. He stirred up a debate for no reason except to be recognized as one of the debaters. Boswell's commentators differ in how they value that activity, and the agonistic stance that he so gleefully took alienated many but not all of his readers.
For Boswell--and, I want to suggest, for eighteenth-century critics in general--this kind of exchange was a process of socialization that brought authors into a special set of relationships. Private interactions between individuals were informed, molded, and even made possible by the ostensibly depersonalized exchange of opinion in print. The most important review that Letters received appeared in the Public Advertiser, which, Boswell discovered through inquiry, was written by none other than Bonnell Thornton, the poet and essayist whose periodical, the St James Chronicle, just happened to be sold alongside Boswell's book in Flexney's shop. On 24 May, Boswell records the occasion of their first meeting:
I received a very polite letter from Mr. Thornton, one of the authors of The Connoisseur, informing me that he had written the criticism on Erskine's and Boswell's Letters in The Public Advertiser, to which I had in return for their civility sent a little essay begging to know who had spoken so favourably of us. Mr. Thornton said he should be happy in our acquaintance. I wrote to him my thanks and said I would call upon him at eleven o'clock, which I did, and found him a well-bred, agreeable man, lively and odd. He had about [pounds sterling]15,000 left him by his father, was bred to physic, but was fond of writing. So he employs himself in that way. In a little, Mr. Wilkes came in, to whom I was introduced, as I also was to Mr. Churchill. Wilkes is a lively, facetious man, Churchill a rough, blunt fellow, very clever. Lloyd too was there, so that I was just got into the middle of the London Geniuses. They were high-spirited and boisterous, but were very civil to me, and Wilkes said he would be glad to see me in George Street. (p. 266)
In Michel Foucault's famous formulation, authorship functions as a way of categorizing and valuing different kinds of texts. (43) Here we can see a situation that is roughly the converse: rather than biographies organizing books on shelves, in this scene the public circulation of texts gathers together men who are known to be their authors. For Boswell at least, the personae that these men cultivated in print informed his understanding of their conviviality: they are the London Geniuses, whose existence before this moment was textual and abstract. Now Boswell finds himself suddenly among them and celebrates that he has been accepted as one of the group. Boswell's numerous journals and publications would set similar scenes over the course of his career, and perhaps none felt more acutely than Boswell the glamour of print. (44) This meeting should be seen as, in many ways, the culmination and fruition of Boswell & Co.'s literary efforts. Critical Strictures and Letters were important because they established print identities for Boswell and his collaborators, which then served as the basis for their insinuation into the already established and well-known, even notorious, fraternity of Churchill and Wilkes. A week later, Boswell would introduce Erskine to Thornton, and the project was complete (p. 271).
But it would be wrong to see this scene as merely one of Boswell's well-known eccentricities. The ambiguous overlap between nationalized public audiences and narrower networks of acquaintance was and is endemic to all forms of public address: to borrow the ears of one's countrymen is often to risk a great deal personally. Early literary criticism stands at a crisis point from which these two kinds of publicity can be made explicit and visible. Boswell made his career by exploiting the interpersonal consequences of criticism--bad criticism, in particular--as a vehicle of narcissistic glamour: he was naughty to others while seeing himself being seen as naughty by others, and knowing that others were seeing themselves being seen by others while condemning him. (45) The strategic violations of propriety for which Boswell is so famous, whether in his journals or in his published writings, are effective because they force these very issues into readers' awareness. In this sense, Boswell's writings exemplify a kind of criticism that seeks neither to understand nor to critique but to disturb. Boswell's early career shows how this dubious publicity could be used to engender new kinds of intimacy. To see Boswell & Co.'s efforts as a possible kind of success suggests that a more thorough examination of the social history of literary criticism may be long overdue.
I would like to thank James Caudle, Jonathan Kramnick, Paula McDowell, and Richard Sher, as well as Alan Herring, Sarah Ligon, and Mark Vareschi for reading and commenting upon early drafts. Research for this article was conducted under fellowships provided by the Center for Cultural Analysis and the Rutgers University School of Arts and Sciences.
(1) James Boswell, An Elegy on the Death of an Amiable Young Lady. With an Epistle from Menalcas to Lycidas. To Which Are Prefixed, Three Critical Recommendatory Letters (Edinburgh: A. Donaldson and J. Reid, 1761), p. 14. For an annotated edition of this letter, see "To Andrew Erskine, 2-8? August 1761," in The General Correspondence of James Boswell, 1757-1763, ed. David Hankins and James J. Caudle (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Univ. Press; New Haven and London: Yale Univ. Press, 2006), pp. 74-7.
(2) Frank Donoghue describes the advent of review periodicals as part of an eighteenth-century consumerist revolution in "Review Criticism and Reading, 1749-1775" in The Fame Machine: Book Reviewing and Eighteenth-Century Literary Careers (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1996), pp. 16-55. Jonathan Brody Kramnick traces the reviews' relationship to earlier periodicals as mediators of public consumption ("Literary Criticism among the Disciplines," ECS 35, 3 [Spring 2002]: 343-60).
(3) Lee Morrissey, "Habermas and the Resistance to Reading in Early English Criticism," in The Constitution of Literature: Literacy, Democracy, and Early English Literary Criticism (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 2008), pp. 1-24. On the rise of literary criticism as a discipline, see Kramnick, "Literary Criticism among the Disciplines"; Clifford Siskin, The Work of Writing: Literature and Social Change in Britain, 1700-1830 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1998); and Douglas Lane Patey, "The Institution of Criticism in the Eighteenth Century," in The Eighteenth Century, ed. H. B. Nisbet and Claude Rawson, vol. 4 of The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, 9 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989), pp. 3-31. For studies of canon formation, see Kramnick, Making the English Canon: Print-Capitalism and the Cultural Past, 1700-1770 (Cambridge; Cambridge Univ. Press, 1998); Trevor Thornton Ross, The Making of the English Literary Canon: From the Middle Ages to the Late Eighteenth Century (Montreal: McGill-Queen's Univ. Press, 1998); Simon Jarvis, Scholars and Gentlemen: Shakespearian Textual Criticism and Representations of Scholarly Labor, 1725-1765 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995); and David Fairer, "Historical Criticism and the English Canon: A Spenserian Dispute in the 1750s," ECLife 24 (Spring 2000): 43-64. Studies that emphasize criticism's role in the regulation of taste and gender include Erin Skye Mackie's "Fashioning Taste on the Culture Market," in Market a la Mode: Fashion, Commodity, and Gender in the "Tatler" and the "Spectator" (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1997), pp. 203-62; Robert W. Jones, "Introduction: 'The Empire of Beauty' and the Cultural Politics of Taste," in Gender and the Formation of Taste in Eighteenth-Century Britain: The Analysts of Beauty (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1998), pp. 1-36; and Laura L. Runge, "Manly Words on Mount Parnassus," in Gender and Language in British Literary Criticism. 1660-1790 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1998), pp. 1-39.
(4) For "social authorship" and "critical practices," see, respectively, Margaret J. M. Ezell, Social Authorship and the Advent of Print (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1999), p. 40, and Paul Trolander and Zeynep Tenger, Sociable Criticism in England, 1625-1725 (Newark: Univ. of Delaware Press, 2007), p. 11. Trolander and Tenger also offer a thoughtful review of the value of a practice-based model for understanding the history of literary criticism in "Abandoning Theory: Towards a Social History of Critical Practices," in Critical Pasts: Writing Criticism, Writing History, ed. Philip Smallwood (Lewisburg PA: Bucknell Univ. Press, 2004), pp. 37-50.
(5) Ezell, p. 102. See also Kathryn R. King, "Jane Barker, Poetical Recreations, and the Sociable Text," ELH 61, 3 (Fall 1994): 551-70.
(6) Boswell, Boswell's London Journal, 1762-1763, ed. Frederick A. Pottle (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1950), p. 154. Subsequent references to Boswell's London Journal hereafter will be cited parenthetically in the text by page number.
(7) Boswell, Erskine, and George Dempster, Critical Strictures on the New Tragedy of Elvira, Written by Mr. David Malloch, ed. Pottle (1763; rprt. Los Angeles: William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, 1952), p. 21, hereafter Critical Strictures.
(8) Critical Strictures, pp. 12-4.
(9) For a brief overview of Thomas Otway's use of this history, see Malcolm Kelsall, Introduction to Venice Preserved, by Otway, ed. Kelsall (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1969), pp. xi-xxii, xiv-vi.
(10) On the relationship between canonical and noncanonical literary works, see William Warner, "The Rise of the Novel in the Eye of Literary London," in Licensing Entertainment: The Elevation of Novel Reading in Britain, 1684-1750 (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1998), pp. 1-44; and John Guillory, "Canonical and Noncanonical: The Current Debate," in Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1993). pp. 3-82.
(11) For a more complete discussion of the relationship between the Elvira episode and the cultural politics of Britishness, see Evan Gottlieb, Feeling British: Sympathy and National Identity in Scottish and English Writing, 1707-1832 (Lewisburg PA: Bucknell Univ. Press, 2007), pp. 107-9.
(12) Such reports are based primarily on the opinion of Samuel Johnson, taken from Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson, L. L. D. See Pottle's discussion in Boswell's London Journal, p. 152n6.
(13) See The London Stage, 1660-1800: A Calendar of Plays. Entertainments, & Afterpieces, Together with Casts, Box-receipts, and Contemporary Comment. Compiled with the Playbills, Newspapers, and Theatrical Diaries of the Period, ed. G. W. Stone, 5 vols. (Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1960-68), 4:973, 974-6, 978, 980, 983; and "Jan. 18-20, 1763" in The London Chronicle: or, Universal Evening Post 13, no. 947 (London: Sold by J. Wilkie, 18-20 January 1763): 71-2, 72.
(14) Universal Magazine 32 (January 1763): 43-8; Gentleman's Magazine 33 (January 1763): 29-31; and London Chronicle 32, no. 948 (20-22 January 1763): 77-8.
(15) Monthly Review; Or Literary Journal: By Several Hands 28 (London: R. Griffiths, 1763): 67-8.
(16) "Article 2," in Critical Review: Or, Annals of Literature, By a Society of Gentlemen 15 (London: A. Hamilton, 1763): 90-6, 90. For Tobias Smollett's involvement with the Critical Review, see Donoghue, pp. 125-58, and British Literary Magazines: The Augustan Age and the Age of Johnson 1698-1788, ed. Alvin Sullivan (Westport CT: Greenwood Press, 1983), pp. 72-6.
(17) Monthly Review 28 (January 1763): 68; "Article 28," in Critical Review 15 (February 1763): 160.
(18) In the Life, Boswell suggests that Dempster may not have shared this enthusiasm (Life of Johnson, ed. George Birbeck Hill and L. F. Powell, 6 vols. [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1934-64], 1:409).
(19) See William F. Hatzberger, "James Boswell's London Journal, Lord Eglinton, and the Politics of Preferment," 1650-1850: Ideas, Aesthetics, and Inquiries in the Early Modern Era 10 (2004): 173-88; and Thomas A. King, "How (Not) to Queer Boswell," in Queer People: Negotiations and Expressions of Homosexuality, 1700-1800, ed. Chris Mounsey and Caroline Gonda (Lewisburg: Bucknell Univ. Press, 2007), pp. 114-58.
(20) Critical Strictures, p. 15.
(21) Considerations of the pamphlet can be found in Erik Bond, Reading London: Urban Speculation and Imaginative Government in Eighteenth Century Literature (Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press, 2007), pp. 140-55, and his "Bringing Up Boswell: Drama, Criticism, and the Journals," AJ 15 (2004): 151-76; as well as Joan H. Pittock, "Boswell as Critic," in New Light on Boswell: Critical and Historical Essays on the Occasion of the Bicentenary of "The Life of Johnson," ed. Greg Clingham (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1991), pp. 72-85.
(22) Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (New York: Methuen, 1982), pp. 103, 102.
(23) Richard Sher, "Identity and Diversity of Scottish Authors," chap. 2 and "Forging the London-Edinburgh Publishing Axis," chap. 4 in The Enlightenment and the Book: Scottish Authors and their Publishers in Eighteenth-Century Britain, Ireland, and America (Chicago and London: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2006), pp. 97-194, 265-326.
(24) Sher, p. 271.
(25) For the most focused attention to the effects I mention here, see Sher, "'The True Scene for a Man of Letters'" in Enlightenment and the Book, pp. 114-31.
(26) A Collection of Original Poems. By Scotch Gentlemen (London: A. Donaldson and J. Reid, 1762). See also General Correspondence, p. 35n63.
(27) Sher, "Scotland in the Strand: A. Millar's Tale," in Enlightenment and the Book, pp. 275-94.
(28) David Mallet, Elvira: A Tragedy. Acted at the Theatre Royal in Drury-Lane (London: Printed for A. Millar, 1763). For Mallet's relationship to Millar, see Sher, p. 284.
(29) Lance Bertelsen, The Nonsense Club: Literature and Popular Culture, 1749-1764 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), pp. 91-131.
(30) For Pittock's description of Boswell's fascination with this group, see Pittock, "Boswell as Critic," p. 75.
(31) British Literary Magazines, p. 299.
(32) Charles Churchill, Poems. By C. Churchill (London: Dryden Leach, 1763).
(33)The St. James Chronicle's review is cited in Pottle's introduction to the facsimile edition of Critical Strictures. On 1 February, the magazine also published an excerpt from Critical Strictures (Pottle, The Literary Career of James Boswell, Esq.; Being the Bibliographical Materials for a Life of Boswell [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1929], p. 19).
(34) Pottle, Literary Career, p. 20.
(35) Thomas Crawford, "Boswell and the Rhetoric of Friendship," in New Light on Boswell, pp. 11-27, 13.
(36) See General Correspondence: "Upon my word Churchill does scourge with a vengeance ... He is certainly a very able writer. He has great power of numbers" (10 October 1761), p. 114.
(37) Caudle, Introduction to General Correspondence, pp. xxxiii-lxxv, liii.
(38) "From Johnston, Thursday 28 April 1763," in The Correspondence of James Boswell and John Johnston of Grange, ed. Ralph S. Walker (London: Heinemann, 1966), pp. 72-4, 73. For Lord Auchinleck's angry response, see Boswell's London Journal, pp. 337-42.
(39) Pottle, Boswell's Earlier Years, p. 105.
(40) "Article 2," Critical Review 15 (May 1763): 343-5, 345. In the Journal, Boswell describes reading this review with Erskine over breakfast (p. 271).
(41) London Chronicle 32, no. 989 (26-28 April 1763): 404, 405.
(42) Monthly Review 28 (June 1763): 477.
(43) Michel Foucault, "What Is an Author?," in The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984), pp. 101-20.
(44) About this moment, Pottle speculates, "If Boswell had not previously met Johnson, this meeting with the 'Geniuses' might well have seemed to him the climax of his months in London" (p. 266n4).
(45) Donald Newman describes narcissism in Boswell's Journal in "A Pretty Trifle: Art and Identity in Boswell's London Journal" PSt 25, 2 (August 2002): 25-50.
Michael Gavin is a postdoctoral fellow at the Rice University Humanities Research Center. This essay is part of a book project on the history of criticism and print culture.…