I shall mark the anecdotes and the stories that I hear, the instructive or amusing conversations that I am present at, and the various adventures that I may have.What is generally found appealing in Boswell's journal today is its frankness--most notably, of course, with respect to his many amorous liaisons ("I picked up a strong, jolly young damsel, and taking her under the arm I conducted her to Westminster Bridge, and then in armour complete did I engage her upon this noble edifice. The whim of doing it there with the Thames rolling below us amused me much."). The story of Louisa is a perfect plot arc that reads, indeed, very true to life. But the frankness is not just sexual. Boswell is there before us, preening in this written mirror, showing all the anxious self-obsession that we ourselves never admit to. He mulls over his conversations of the day before and asks himself if he was clever or perhaps too "free." And here we can all sympathize with him, however reprehensible we might find him at other moments.
I was observing to my friend Erskine that a plan of this kind was dangerous, as a man might in the openness of his heart say many things and discover many facts that might do him great harm if the journal should fall into the hands of my enemies. Against which there is no perfect security. "Indeed," said he, "I hope there is no danger at all; for I fancy you will not set down your robberies on the highway, or the murders that you commit. As to other things there can be no harm." I laughed heartily at my friend's observation, which was so far true. I shall be upon my guard to mention nothing that can do harm. Truth shall ever be observed, and these things (if there should be any such) that require the gloss of falsehood shall be passed by in silence. At the same time I may relate things under borrowed names with safety that would otherwise do much mischief if particularly known.
In this way I shall preserve many things that would otherwise be lost in oblivion. I shall find daily employment for myself, which will save me from indolence and help to keep off the spleen, and I shall lay up a store of entertainment for my after life ... I hope it will be of use to my worthy friend Johnston, and that while he laments my personal absence, this journal may in some measure supply that defect and make him happy.
- James Boswell, London Journal 1762-1763
While this reading might be an attractive and useful one, it misses a central point: Boswell's journal isn't really a private document. As he says in the very beginning, he plans to send his entries on a regular basis to his friend John Johnston, and shows no compunctions at reading sections aloud to his companions. What we think of as a window into his soul is really a much more complicated kind of document, neither entirely open nor entirely deceptive. In any case, it is a "constructed" work, not an "authentic" one: it is written with literature in mind.(Not to mention that he was often writing entries weeks after the fact, which, as in the case of Louisa, allowed him to construct a nice story with the benefit of hindsight.)
Of course, to apply our own categories of public and private to Boswell's life would be misguided. We simply don't operate within the boundaries he does. His spur-of-the-moment decision to publish his own correspondence with his friend, apparently without much concern for anonymity, would be for us a much more serious matter; a casual publication of that sort would be today be regarded as "oversharing." Even the publication of famous people's letters is today conducted with much pomp and circumstance, while the London reviewers didn't seem surprised--even if they found his "genius" wanting in other ways. Boswell's "private" life in many ways is conducted in public: he is visiting people at almost every hour of the day, and "being denied" has to be resorted to constantly as a means of getting at least a little time alone.
If the text is not a private document, then what is it? Revealingly, at one point Boswell quotes Louisa as approving of Catholicism precisely because of its institution of confession. The Journal serves for him a similar function--thus maintaining a inherent tension between inwardness and disclosure. It is kept with the goal, however poorly realized or articulated, of helping Boswell reflect upon and develop more moral habits. (In this it follows the Puritan spiritual diaries of the early seventeenth century.) In the narrative, of course, this goal is constantly undermined, since at times it seems to be as much a stage for showing off as for moral improvement. But in Boswell's mind the goal of becoming sober, restrained, and, above all, socially-dignified, remains unaltered.
This process of confession, for Boswell, often takes the form of a comparison between the kind of face he would like to present to the world and the face he actually does present. This suggests yet another role for the text: it serves as a kind of glue that binds a series of haphazardly connected events into a story with a central character and a structure. But--to bring it full-circle--the self-fashioning process takes place as much in public as in private. If there is something exhilarating about Boswell's world, it is because everyone around him is playing the same kind of game.