His conversation and opinions take wing, becoming progressively more Johnsonian. Although it was 10 years before Boswell found the courage to confess he was writing his Life , there were some clues to his ultimate intention. In August , 10 years after first meeting Boswell, Johnson set out with his young friend on A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland , as his account of their travels expressed it.
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This trial run for Life was a success. As many have complained, these scenes mainly occur in the taverns and dining rooms of literary London, in the company of Oliver Goldsmith, David Garrick and Joshua Reynolds, as well as many other close associates of Johnson. As we walked along the Strand tonight, arm in arm, a woman of the town accosted us, in the usual enticing manner.
The conversation, fuelled with quantities of port, ranges promiscuously across all manner of topics: printers, adultery, birds, primogeniture, marriage, crowds, booksellers, Americans, the plays of Sheridan, bad poets especially Thomas Gray , bears, fame, Whigs, warfare and cookery books.
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Life is also a book of table talk, overheard conversations and literary repartee. Johnson almost always comes across as winning and eccentric. Johnson may have been a Tory who hated Whigs, but he was never reclusive, indifferent or antisocial — he loved company. Thus it was that he met the famous radical hellraiser, John Wilkes, on 15 May Johnson loathed the idea of Wilkes. A man apparently without principle, Wilkes was a member both of parliament and the Hellfire Club, a demagogue and a rake.
Boswell knew that Wilkes was good company and contrived — mischievously — to get him invited to dinner with Edward Dilly, the bookseller. When Boswell said he would bring Johnson, Dilly was horrified, but Boswell pressed ahead. He would. As if I could not meet any company whatever, occasionally. Wednesday 15 May came round and at the dinner Wilkes seated himself next to Johnson, resolutely determined to please.
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The names of common acquaintances came up and Wilkes scoffed at those he knew Johnson had sometimes scorned himself. No one, of course, could speak ill of his friends but Johnson himself. Scotland was another matter. The great man reported that Boswell had taken him there — it was a barren place. Johnson and Wilkes began competing together to make jibes against Scotland. Poor Boswell, Johnson said, with pointed cunning, hardly knew what real civility was for living among savages in Scotland and rakes in London.
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