James Boswell and the Uses of Criticism

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Abstract

"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.

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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. …