A Scottish Classic?

[x-posted from my 8353 blog] 

Courtesy of the Scotsman, via Jenny Davidson’s Light Reading:

In any ordinary understanding of the word, the Boswell papers had indeed been “lost”. Millions of words of the young Laird of Auchinleck’s prodigious output, including most of his terrific journal and large unpublished sections of the Life of Johnson, had been known to reside somewhere in Malahide Castle in Ireland, the home of Boswell’s great-great-grandson, Lord Talbot de Malahide.

For a number of reasons, the family was not desperate to release them. They had little idea of the scholarly, literary or pecuniary value of the cache – but they did have an all-too-vivid understanding of their ancestor’s kenspeckle reputation. Before handing the manuscripts to Isham, Lady Talbot carefully inked over every indecorous word, phrase and passage in the collection (it took American experts 18 months to delete her deletions).

All of which brings us to 2007 and an Edinburgh publishing house. Birlinn has published To the Hebrides, containing Samuel Johnson’s Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland and James Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides. The most devoted reader could be forgiven for suppressing a yawn. How many more Johnson and Boswells in Caledonia do we need? The answer is one more. And the reason is Isham.

I haven’t seen this new dual-author version of the two texts, but I can imagine how using might have affected our discussion of Boswell and Johnson’s contrasting styles.  Who ever said that bibliography was a dull, pedestrian subject, when it involves mucking around in the stables looking for manuscripts? 

The newly chronologized form offered by this version is also interesting to me, because it simply acknowledges and facilitates what Boswell and Johnson readers (and have they ever been separate audiences) have always done: working back and forth between the divergent accounts.

How much do you want to bet that the “unedited” (or de-Maloned) version of these two texts becomes the standard classroom edition in the next 5 years, along the lines of the newly republished, de-fictionalized “novel-reduced-to-memoir” On the Road

There should be a term for this phenomenon: how about Post Facto Memoir, when a published text is re-edited to make it appear less polished, less narratively shaped, and more like a daily journal?


4 responses to “A Scottish Classic?

  1. Shayda Hoover


    This trend, if it is one, is new to me–do you have more examples? What do you think underlies the urge to Post Facto Memoir? Marlon James (http://marlon-james.blogspot.com/) wrote recently that he thinks readers are becoming more interested in reading authors than books–does that have anything to do with it?

    Or in other words, why would we as readers want a book that looks more like a “journal”?


  2. David Mazella

    Well, I’ve been watching the trends in our creative writing program, and at least part of it has to do with the emergence of the “creative non-fiction” category, which includes memoirs and other forms of autobiographical or confessional writing.

    From the reception end, I think a year or two ago saw one of the first years of non-fiction outselling fiction commercially, and the literary ends of both categories reflect that, too.

    I do think that the notion of innovation, which was once tied up exclusively with literary form, now has well-established links with identity, in a lot of contemporary writing, and this, too, is confirmed with a lot of the anthologies and how they get presented and sold. This is not a bad thing, but it has changed our definitions of literariness in the past 10-15 years, I think.

    I can’t think of more examples offhand of books losing their edited and finished form in this way, though. This seems to hearken back to romantic aesthetics, and the celebration of the unfinished sketch over the finished product.



  3. Shayda Hoover

    Have you seen Rachel Toor’s article, “Creating Nonfiction,” in the Careers section of the Chronicle of Higher Education? Here’s the link: http://chronicle.com/jobs/news/2007/12/2007120301c/printable.html

  4. david mazella

    OK, I read the Toors piece, which is interesting, but pretty unhelpful if you’re trying, say, to advise someone who wants to become a “creative non-fiction” writer or if you want to create a program that would produce such writers.

    When I think about this genre or non-genre, I am intrigued by the fact that conclusive answers really haven’t emerged to these questions: What are the essential characteristics, and what are the outer boundaries of the genre? How is it historically delimited? Can it be defined formally? etc. etc. I honestly think these are difficult questions, with very little consensus about how to answer them.

    Of course, many of the writers themselves, faculty and wannabes alike, may or may not be interested in such questions, but I teach CW program people alongside lit types in my seminars, and they do introduce distinctive questions into the mix, especially when I’m teaching figures like Boswell or Rousseau, who either stand as the distinguished originators of the “creative non-fiction” genre, or reminders of the limits of that term.