Johnson and Boswell: The Transit of Caledonia

By Pat Rogers | Go to book overview

2
The Grand Detour: Johnson's
Un-Italian Journey

Two of the great classics of eighteenth-century travel literature are Johnson Journey ( 1775) and Goethe Italienische Reise ( 1815- 16).1 Goethe describes his stay in Rome between 1786 and 1788, whilst Johnson's book is devoted, of course, to the tour of Scotland that he made with Boswell in 1773. Some immediate discrepancies appear: the destination of the voyage, the delay in the publication of Goethe's account, the length of the travellers' stay, and the contrast of a solitary voyage as against a joint expedition. What the books have most obviously in common is their literary distinction. Each man relates a crucial encounter with a hitherto unfamiliar world and makes his personal experience the occasion for a broader survey of culture and the environment.

The argument I have to propose here is that a more fundamental difference underlies the discrepancies, and serves at the same time to throw their element of congruence into a sharper light. In brief, I shall contend that Johnson's trip constituted a kind of anti-grand tour, reversing the usual expectations of the literature surrounding this familiar rite de passage. By contrast, Goethe, though he did not exactly perform a grand tour in the usual sense, replicated many of the experiences of those who did, and the text of his Italian Journey reflects this. The emphasis here will be on Johnson, with Goethe in the role of a control rather than an object of primary attention. This involves some simplification and possible distortion of this work, but a book so famous and so thoroughly studied can reasonably be left to look after itself, whatever academic indignities it may be forced to endure.

Johnson's book describes an expedition for which he prepared himself mentally (as the young tourist was advised to prepare

____________________
1
References are to J. W. von Goethe, Italian Journey, trans. W. H. Auden and Elizabeth Mayer (n.p.: Pantheon Books, 1962), abbreviated for clarity, where necessary, as IJ.

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