Boswell’s Enlightenment (Hardback)
  • Boswell’s Enlightenment (Hardback)
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Boswell’s Enlightenment (Hardback)

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£35.95
Hardback 288 Pages
Published: 07/01/2021
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Throughout his life, James Boswell struggled to fashion a clear account of himself, but try as he might, he could not reconcile the truths of his era with those of his religious upbringing. Boswell’s Enlightenment examines the conflicting credos of reason and faith, progress and tradition that pulled Boswell, like so many eighteenth-century Europeans, in opposing directions. In the end, the life of the man best known for writing Samuel Johnson’s biography was something of a patchwork affair. As Johnson himself understood: “That creature was its own tormentor, and I believe its name was BOSWELL.”

Few periods in Boswell’s life better crystallize this internal turmoil than 1763–1765, the years of his Grand Tour and the focus of Robert Zaretsky’s thrilling intellectual adventure. From the moment Boswell sailed for Holland from the port of Harwich, leaving behind on the beach his newly made friend Dr. Johnson, to his return to Dover from Calais a year and a half later, the young Scot was intent on not just touring historic and religious sites but also canvassing the views of the greatest thinkers of the age. In his relentless quizzing of Voltaire and Rousseau, Hume and Johnson, Paoli and Wilkes on topics concerning faith, the soul, and death, he was not merely a celebrity-seeker but—for want of a better term—a truth-seeker. Zaretsky reveals a life more complex and compelling than suggested by the label “Johnson’s biographer,” and one that 250 years later registers our own variations of mind.

Publisher: Harvard University Press
ISBN: 9780674368231
Number of pages: 288
Dimensions: 210 x 140 mm


MEDIA REVIEWS

The key theme of Robert Zaretsky’s splendid new book on James Boswell is that his life was a roaming drama of self-discovery…Boswell’s Enlightenment is thus about the art of living. Boswell’s interest for the historian lies not with the originality of his thought—there was none—but as an example of someone who struggled, Zaretsky shows, ‘to bend his person to certain philosophical ends.’ Hume, Johnson, Rousseau and Voltaire were asked to help him divine what those ends might be. Zaretsky’s elegantly written book, then, stands alongside a growing literature—including the works of Pierre Hadot (Philosophy as a Way of Life) and Alexander Nehemas (The Art of Living)—that renders the history of philosophy not as an academic pursuit, but as something wrought in pursuit of the common good. - Gavin Jacobson, Times Literary Supplement

Zaretsky’s buoyant and rigorous ‘intellectual adventure’ is a successful attempt to place the writer within the broad tapestry of the European Enlightenment…In Zaretsky’s book, we see the effect of one great mind upon another, again and again, and thus we see the evolution of Boswell’s dazzling prose style. - Andrew O’Hagan, New York Review of Books

Enthralling…Boswell’s Enlightenment proves that the world’s greatest biographer makes a fascinating subject in his own right. - Josh Emmons, Los Angeles Review of Books

During his life, Boswell was known more for his associations than for his accomplishments, but it’s time, historian Robert Zaretsky thinks, to give him his moment in the spotlight…Zaretsky’s telling is as much an intellectual history as it is a coming-of-age tale, though one gets the sense that Boswell never quite came of age…Zaretsky’s account of this conflicted man is a sympathetic, fluid, and very enjoyable read. We see a man in search not so much of wisdom as of seekers of wisdom. As much as he tried, Boswell never became an intellectual equal with the great thinkers of his day, but as an observer of them (and of himself) he had no peer. - David Nolan, First Things

Entertaining…[Zaretsky] put[s] Boswell forward as, among other things, a harbinger of our own day, a living symbol of a transition from the high-minded ideals of a more pure intellectual world to the self-centered obsessions of day-to-day reality. - Steven Donoghue, Christian Science Monitor

Engaging…Boswell’s Enlightenment is a readable, smart, accessible introduction to a self-absorbed but likable young man who reminds us the Age of Enlightenment was also the Age of Exuberance. - Fritz Lanham, Houston Chronicle

James Boswell, best known as Samuel Johnson’s biographer, was a lifelong seeker of truth. He struggled to put together his Calvinist religious heritage with the insights and perspectives of the Enlightenment. From 1763 to 1765 he toured Europe not just to see the historic sites but to encounter some of its greatest living thinkers, among them Rousseau and Voltaire. Zaretsky adroitly chronicles Boswell’s intellectual journey and introduces the reader to the varieties of 18th-century Enlightenment. Boswell’s struggles remain with us—over the relationship between faith and reason, the nature of human liberty and equality, the duties of citizenship, the role and limits of the state, and what constitutes the good life. - Christian Century

Zaretsky believes Boswell was an exceptional talent, notwithstanding his weaknesses, and certainly worthy of our attention. Glossing several periods of Boswell’s life but closely examining his grand tour of the Continent (1763–1765), Zaretsky elevates Boswell’s station, repairs Boswell’s literary reputation, and corrects a longstanding underestimation, calling attention to his complicated and curious relationship to the Enlightenment, a movement or milieu that engulfed him without necessarily defining him…Bristling with the animated, ambulatory prose of the old style of literary and historical criticism, the kind that English professors disdain but educated readers enjoy and appreciate. - Allen Mendenhall, Liberty Unbound

With the flair of an accomplished novelist, Zaretsky creates a vivid portrait…Drawing on an impressive array of firsthand sources and writing with a keen eye for the dramatic, Zaretsky has done students and scholars alike a timely favor. - Paul J. deGategno, 1650–1850

Robert Zaretsky’s excellent book provides a wealth of information about Enlightenment thought, all of it brought to life in the mind and imagination of that irrepressible Scot, James Boswell…Boswell’s Enlightenment is also the reader’s enlightenment. The book surveys the major ideas of this period’s thinkers, from luminaries like Johnson and Hume, Voltaire and Rousseau, to somewhat lesser lights like Adam Smith and Hugh Blair, Montesquieu and Diderot…The book deserves the highest praise. - D. T. Siebert, The Key Reporter

Zaretsky has written an engrossing study of James Boswell, the renowned biographer of Samuel Johnson and the equally famous diarist…There must have been something irresistible about Boswell’s personality for such a young man to have been able to secure the attentions of these men, not to mention the close friendship of literary titan Samuel Johnson. A fascinating character study, Boswell’s Enlightenment helps readers understand what that something was. It is also the story of Boswell’s struggle to reconcile his strict Calvinist upbringing with the ideas of the Enlightenment and with his tempestuous impulses and literary ambition. - J. Hoffman, Choice

James Boswell (1740–1795) comes to life in Zaretsky’s recounting of his European grand tour in the mid‐18th‐century…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…This wonderful rendering of Boswell digs deep into his probing, enquiring life and the fast friends he made at every turn. - Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

This sparkling work is a partial biography of one of the 18th century’s most arresting figures—someone often taken to be emblematic of that intellectually critical era. Zaretsky sees James Boswell—known for ‘his oddness, his youth, and his melancholy’—as embodying the Enlightenment’s many conflicting currents and torn by them all. Seeking to escape from conflicts between the flesh and Protestant religiosity, and between the ancient and modern, the young Scot sought and gained the acquaintance and counsel, much of it unsettling to him, of some of the age’s great figures—Samuel Johnson, Voltaire, Rousseau, David Hume, John Wilkes, and Pascal Paoli—in a famous two-year tour of the Continent. Boswell’s earnest search for answers to life’s bewildering puzzles continues to fascinate. Zaretsky brilliantly, sometimes movingly, adds to that fascination…So convincing are Zaretsky’s observations, so sure his touch. - Publishers Weekly

In this beautifully written account, Robert Zaretsky plays Boswell to Boswell, as the young Scot goes in search of Europe’s great thinkers—and in the process discovers his own calling. Part biography, part history of ideas, it makes for a thrilling intellectual journey. - James Shapiro, Columbia University

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