Boswell Research: His Letter to Hume–Grovelling Apology or All In Jest?

James Boswell and his young prankster friends published a derogatory critique of the playwright David Malloch’s Elvira (premiered in 1763), in which they added words spoken in a private conversation between Boswell and David Hume. According to Boswell and his friends, George Dempster and Andrew Erskine, Hume accused Malloch of being “destitute of the pathetic”. The term pathetic, used in this way, would hearken back to its original meaning–that is, able to arouse compassion. This would have been a devastating critique to an author of tragedies, and not one that Hume would have wanted published if he wished to remain friends with Malloch. Hume, in fact, sent a letter to Boswell expressing his irritation. Boswell returned the favor with a letter of apology to Hume, but I’m afraid the tone comes across as yet another joke. You be the judge:

(This is from Boswell’s London Journal 1762-1763, dated Tuesday 1 March.)

At night I wrote to David Hume as follows:

My Dear Sir,–The heavy charge which you have given us demands a a reply of proportionate weight of mettle. We are equally surprised and afflicted at your imagining that we meant you when we mentioned David Hume, Esq. To be sure, Sir, you are the David Hume, Esq., but you are not the sole one. He whose authority we have made bold to quote is a bookseller at Glasgow, who from his employment must be supposed to be well known in the world of letters. He is a man of very good understanding and more genius than most of his brethren, but his contempt for Mr. Malloch’s abilities as a tragic poet almost exceed belief. He will not so much as allow his works to stand in his shop, and he constantly affirms that he is destitute of the Pathetic.

Now, Sir, we shall suppose that we really meant you; and in that case we are ready to make oath either before Sir John Fielding or Mr. Saunders Welch (justices of the peace) that we heard you utter that very expression. As to the consequences of this affair: we are very sorry that you live in good terms with Mr. Malloch, and if we can make a quarrel between you, it will give us infinite pleasure. We shall glory in being the instruments of dissolving so heterogeneous an alliance; of separating the mild from the irascible, and the divine from the bestial.

We know very well how sore every author is when sharply touched in his works. We are pleased with giving acute pain to Mr. Malloch. We have vast satisfaction in making him smart by the rod of criticism, as much as many a tender bum has smarted by his barbarous birch when he was janitor of the High School at Edinburgh.

As to the giving you satisfaction for the offence, you may receive full gratification by reading the Reviews on our performance. You will there find us held forth both as fools and as knaves; and if you will give us any other abusive appellations, we shall most submissively acquiesce. I hope this affair is now perfectly settled. I insist upon your writing to me in your usual humane style, and I assure you most sincerely that I am, my dear Sir, your most obedient humble servant*,

Boswell & Co.

*In Hume’s letter, the text of which can also be found in Boswell’s journal, he ended with “I am not, Sir, your most obedient and most humble servant”.

p.s. Image is of David Hume, the philosopher who received Boswell’s letter.

p.p.s. More on these matters can be found in Boswell’s London Journal 1762-1763, published by McGraw-Hill Book Company: 1950. Here is also a great site resource: James Boswell Info.



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