IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF JOHNSON AND BOSWELL by Israel Shenker
Kirkus Star

IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF JOHNSON AND BOSWELL

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Have no fear, Shenker fans: this feature writer par excellence has not forsaken human interest for 18th-century scholarship. True, Shenker genuinely loves his Johnson; and he did decide--when the New York Times was closed by a strike in '78--to quit the paper, head for Britain, and (with bis wife) follow the itinerary of the Johnson/Boswell 1773 journey to Scotland's highlands and islands: ""to see what they had seen, and to see what they could not see--how things had changed since their day."" But the object wasn't a purist's re-creation (""since chaises were rare on the ground, we had acquired a 1.3-liter Ford Escort""). And, wherever the path leads, from Edinburgh north and west, to Skye and the bleak smaller isles, Johnson-and-Boswell are most often merely an excuse for Shenker to do what he does better than almost anybody: brief, yet fully satisfying, interview-visits with plain, fascinating people. (A typical lead-in: ""Since Johnson and Boswell called on local gentry, I thought it appropriate to visit Harald Jacobsen, a retired industrialist. . . ."") Thus, we meet--and hear from--crofters and skippers; hotel-keepers and lairds; the oldest man on the isle of Mull; a castle's butler-and-wife; a forester doing his homework for an Open University course; a village librarian; one native of the isle of Ulva (pop. 22), as well as several ferrymen. The subjects chatted about? Scots nationalism, tourists, alcoholism, medical education for women, military history (from the captain at Fort George), courtship, transducers. (Transducers? Yes. Leave it to Shenker to discover that ""the only company in Europe making transducers for measuring pressure within the body"" is on Skye.) But two matters dominate--both of them crucial to that thorny matter of tradition vs. progress: the survival of the Gaelic language (asked how he'd say ""antiballistic missile"" in Gaelic, the Inverness president of An Column Gaidhealach says ""I don't as a rule talk about inter whatch-emacallits in Gaelic""); and religion--with a series of varied, vivid clergymen (from fundamentalist to the socialist-pacifist Iona Community) discussing sin, the Bible, and each other's sects. Shenker never intrudes himself, of course; yet, as ever, his dry, understated sense of humor informs every page--especially when he's snubbed by the Duke of Argyll (who bears an ancestral anti-Boswell grudge), lost on the search for an old road, or suffering the rigors of Hebridean ferries. Scenery? Very little. Johnsoniana? Only a few delightful dabs. But for shrewd, observant, beautifully shaped encounters with the Scottish people, this is it: Shenker at his charming, curious best.

Pub Date: March 31st, 1982
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin