Mr. Boswell Goes to Corsica: The surprising origins of modern democratic charisma (David A. Bell, May 11, 2016, Princeton Alumni Weekly)

On Oct. 13, 1765, a Scotsman landed on the northern tip of Corsica. He was just 25 years old, with a wide face; thick, well-groomed hair; and a ruddy drinker’s complexion. He was well dressed, and would have struck casual observers as just another well-off, dissipated young Briton guzzling his way through a Grand Tour of Europe. His name was James Boswell. Today, he is remembered as a great literary figure. His Life of Johnson virtually invented the modern art of biography. His vivid, intimately personal, sexually explicit London Journal, published for the first time only in 1950, provides an unforgettable portrait of a young man on the make and of his 18th-century milieu. But in 1765 he was still wholly unknown.

He was already, however, an extraordinary character. Although prone to spells of dark melancholy, he otherwise had an effervescent temperament that made him highly entertaining company. As he confided to his journal: “I am one of the most engaging men that ever lived.” He also was a man of enormous appetites. He ate well, drank to excess, and had already endured several bouts with the lifetime sparring partner he privately nicknamed “Signor Gonorrhea.” But he was hungry for knowledge and experience as well. During two years on the continent, he had visited the usual destinations of the British Grand Tourist — art collections, palaces, and picturesque ruins — but he also had spent considerable time in libraries and classrooms. And he had sought out another, unusual sort of tourist attraction: great men. He had set himself the goal of meeting Frederick the Great, Voltaire, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and while the Prussian monarch snubbed him, the two writers did not. At the end of 1764, Boswell had made his way to the remote Swiss village of Môtiers, and there practically besieged the reclusive Rousseau’s modest cottage until he won admittance. He later would repay Rousseau very badly for the favor by seducing his mistress, Thérèse Levasseur, but at the time he impressed the great writer with his wit and enthusiasm.

It was thanks to Rousseau that in 1765 Boswell set out for Corsica. For some four decades, the island had been fighting a slow-burning war of independence against its long-time overlord, the Italian Republic of Genoa (at the time, Italy was not yet a united country). The Corsicans had won Europe-wide attention for their supposed attachment to republican liberty, and Rousseau himself had praised them in his recently published Social Contract as the “one country in Europe which is fit to receive laws … .” Rousseau not only talked to Boswell about the island, but told him in glowing terms about its leader, a 45-year-old professional soldier named Pasquale Paoli. Since coming to power 10 years before, Paoli had brought peace to the perennially fractious Corsican clans, reorganized the island’s government and military, and even founded a press and a university, despite conditions of such poverty that he routinely scraped the ink off letters he received so as to reuse the paper. Here was another great man for Boswell to add to his collection, and the young Scot could not resist seeking out Paoli, despite the not-inconsiderable risk of falling prey to sea pirates or bandits, or being taken by the Corsicans for a spy.

No pirates materialized, and Boswell suffered nothing worse on the two-day journey than fleas, vermin, and the dark warnings of the crew to stay away from their women (they clearly knew their man). He landed safely at the northern tip of the island, and then undertook a grueling, 120-mile trek southward, arriving more than a week later in the town of Sollacaro, where Paoli was staying. The Corsican leader initially reacted with suspicion, thinking that Boswell — who kept scribbling down detailed notes of everything he saw — had indeed come to spy. But soon enough, the Boswellian charm — plus a letter of introduction from Rousseau — produced the desired effect. And Paoli for his part realized that Boswell might prove useful in mobilizing British support for the rebellion. So he treated his visitor royally, feasting him, introducing him to Corsican clan leaders, allowing him to ride his own finely outfitted horse, and spending long hours in conversation with him. When, after nearly two weeks, Boswell began the long trip back to the mainland, Paoli gave him a series of rich gifts, including an elegant suit of clothes, a brace of pistols, and a dog. Boswell asked Paoli to write him letters, and to do so as a philosopher and man of letters. “He took me by the hand,” Boswell later wrote, “and said, ‘as a friend.’” Boswell nearly collapsed with pleasure.

Almost from the moment he landed back in Italy, Boswell started writing about Corsica and Paoli for London newspapers, and told everyone that his experiences on the island had left him a changed man.