By Chet Yarbrough
The Club (Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped an Age)
By: Leo Damrosch
Narrated by Simon Vance
“The Club” is more of a biography of James Boswell than “…the Friends Who Shaped an Age”.
James Boswell (1740-1795, died at 54, Lawyer, diarist, biographer.).
An irony of Damrosch’s story is that Boswell neither has the intellectual depth nor historical significance of Johnson or many of the “…Friends who shaped an Age”. What Leo Damrosch explains is Boswell is a great mime for the opinions and voices of Johnson and Friends. Damrosch suggests Boswell is the first biographer to capture natural dialog with detailed features of friends and acquaintances.
In some ways, Boswell is like a court jester, eliciting laughter and opinion in a court of higher-ranking superiors.
Damrosch is not denigrating Boswell’s contribution to historical information but shows Boswell as a bon vivant, rather than an intellectual. “The Club” is an association of writers, artists, and thinkers formed in a London tavern in the 1760s. Damrosch notes that the club is formed by Joshua Reynolds, a noted portrait artist. In addition to Reynolds, the original members are Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, Edmund Burke, John Hawkins, Topham Beauclerk, Anthony Chamier, Bennet Langton, and Christopher Nugent. To become a member of the club, one is elected by existing members.
Sir Joshua Reynold’s Club
Boswell, Edward Gibbon, and Adam Smith become members in the 1770s. From an American perspective, the names of Reynolds, Johnson, Burke, Gibbon, and Smith are the best known. Many will recognize Reynolds for portrait paintings of famous people of that time. Reynold’s portraits are in galleries today. Damrosch notes the portraits represent the best of what a person looks like with creative enhancements of the subject’s best features. Burke is famous for vilification of the French Revolution and his conservative views of government. Gibbon is famous for his “…History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”, and Johnson for his dictionary.
Contrary to what Damrosch notes, it does not appear David Garrick, a famous Shakespearean actor and producer, was in that club but had his own tavern club called the Garrick Club. Garrick had been a pupil of Samuel Johnson. Damrosch may have identified Garrick as a member of “The Club” because of his association with Johnson.
David Garrick (1717-1779, died age 62, English actor, playwright, theater manager, and producer.)
Boswell is characterized by Damrosch as an excellent conversationalist because of an ability to listen and ask questions that have interest for those whom he questions. However, at times, Damrosch notes Johnson becomes irritated with Boswell’s questions because of their vacuous value. The example given is Boswell’s question to Johnson about why Apples are round while Pears grow with narrow shoulders and wide hips.
Boswell’s question to Johnson-why are Apples round while Pears grow with narrow shoulders and wide hips?
Damrosch shows Boswell comes from a wealthy, aristocratic family. He is the eldest son, in line to receive the wealth of his family when his father dies. Boswell moves to London to become an attorney but fails to learn his profession well enough to be financially or reputationally successful. He meets Johnson whom he admires, and through association, Boswell manages to meet the movers and shakers of his day. Boswell becomes a diarist that records his life and the lives of people he meets. His writing makes him famous, largely because of his association with Samuel Johnson and his remarkable ability to reproduce the natural conversation of “…Friends Who Shaped an Age”.
Boswell, from Damrosch’s description, is a hedonist. He lives for pleasure from conversation with luminaries, drinking to excess, and dalliance with women of the street and lovers whom he seduces.
Boswell is characterized as a pursuer of women who have an interest in sexual encounters for pay or pleasure. Boswell’s lifestyle leads to periodic treatment for crabs and other sexually transmitted diseases.
Damrosch notes that Boswell marries but continues his profligate behavior. Boswell professes love and remorse to his wife, who knows of his dalliances. She bares his behavior and accepts his remorse. His wife dies of consumption with seeming disregard by Boswell’s self-absorption.
Margaret Boswell (1738-1789. died at age 51.)
Boswell inherits his father’s wealth but squanders it and fails as a barrister. Nearing the end of his life, he produces the best biography of Samuel Johnson ever written. It becomes a best seller in his time and is still read by some today. Damrosch notes Boswell’s contribution to biography is in making his subjects human by including detailed descriptions of their appearance, and emotive qualities.
More detailed information about the lives of Edmund Burke, Edward Gibbon, and Adam Smith would have made “The Club” more interesting to this reviewer but any who have listened to other narratives by Simon Vance will be pleased by Damrosch’s story. At the least, a struggling writer may be encouraged to keep a diary of life’s events to become a better author.