James Boswell (1740-1795) comes to life in Zaretsky’s (French History/Univ. of Houston; A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning, 2013) recounting of his European grand tour in the mid-18th-century.
Boswell’s search for the answers of the Enlightenment began in his Edinburgh school days. On a short holiday in southern Scotland, he began to keep a journal, a habit that scholars have benefited from ever since. Raised in the strict Calvinist religion, for a period he considered Catholicism, until his father threatened to disown him. He had the greatest minds of the time to help him search for answers: David Hume, Adam Smith, Knox, Hobbes and Francis Hutcheson. A year in London brought him to a chance meeting with Samuel Johnson, who became a lifelong friend in addition to Boswell’s biographical subject. Zaretsky follows Boswell’s travels through Europe as he honed his tactic of throwing himself at the Enlightenment thinkers he wished to meet. He became great friends with Rousseau and his nemesis, Voltaire. Perfecting the art of being easygoing and chatty, he picked the brains of the great minds of his time. The English exile John Wilkes and Corsican rebel general Pasquale Paoli showed him the meaning of freedom and changed his outlook on life. Boswell also suffered from lifelong depression—an affliction shared by Johnson—and wrote dozens of essays on the subject. Without deep, confusing discussion of philosophical issues, Zaretsky introduces the Enlightenment greats who taught and molded Boswell. The vast store of knowledge our traveler absorbed in so few years makes for truly enlightening reading. “Boswell matters not because his mind was as original or creative as the men and women he pursued,” writes the author, “but because his struggle to make sense of his life…appeals to our own needs and sensibilities.”
This wonderful rendering of Boswell digs deep into his probing, enquiring life and the fast friends he made at every turn.