PRIDE AND NEGLIGENCE: The History of the Boswell Papers by Frederick A. Pottle

PRIDE AND NEGLIGENCE: The History of the Boswell Papers

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Until his retirement in 1979, Professor Pottle was chairman of the editorial committee for Yale's massive Private Papers of James Boswell; and this leisurely narrative--published as introductory material in the 1950s but now expanded and offered as a separate book for the first time--reconstructs, with scholarly yet un-stuffy precision, just how all those Boswell papers (including the now-famous Journals) were lost, forgotten, suppressed, discovered, fought over. . . and ultimately brought together after 150 years. Four short chapters cover the century following Boswell's death in 1795: the ""inaccurate, ambiguous, and contradictory"" provisions of Boswell's will (including the creation of an iffy literary trust); his heirs' increasing Victorian tendency toward hiding or losing the papers (not to mention censoring them with a variety of inks and paints); and the late-19th-century rumor, widely believed, that the papers had been destroyed by fire. The story becomes more involving, however, in the 20th century, as Pottle writes, increasingly, from personal knowledge. There's the 1925 discovery (""no feat of detection"") of many papers at the second Boswell family home, Maiahide--by Yale's Prof. Tinker, Pottle's mentor. There's the continuing saga of bowdlerization, with Malahide's Lady Talbot (vivacious wife of Boswell's inheriting descendant) inking out ""indelicacies."" And, above all, there's the arrival of US-born Ralph Isham--a histrionic, financially shaky collector who bought the Talbots' Boswelliana and hired Pottle (in 1929) to oversee the publication of James Boswell's Private Papers. But did Isham purchase all the Boswell papers, as he thought? Far from it. In 1936 an equally important assortment was turned up by the heirs of Boswell's literary executor Forbes (who apparently never returned them to the Boswell manse): a secret publication plan and a complex lawsuit ensued. And in the 1940s further material surfaced in the stable-loft at Malahide. Still, despite these costly surprises and great domestic woes, Isham ""deliberately, adroitly, and with great courage"" managed to unite Boswell's archives--which he finally sold in tote to Yale in 1950. (Epilogues recount additional purchases since 1950 and the history of the publication itself.) Agreeably, Pottle heaps no scorn on the Boswell family or other obstructionists: ""The fact is that the world got Boswell's papers about as soon as it showed itself ready to handle them."" And though the minute detailing here makes this mostly for Boswellians only, Pottle's wry, gentle manner--even when discussing his own legal wrangles with Isham--captures the eccentric world of publishers, scholars, and collectors vividly enough to engage a few non-specializing readers as well.

Pub Date: Jan. 3rd, 1981
Publisher: McGraw-Hill