John Miles Foley, Founding Editor

Theorizing Orality and Performance in Literary Anecdote and History: Boswell’s Diaries


This essay analyzes orality and song performance in the eighteenth-century diaries of James Boswell, gentleman Scot and literary figure. Boswell’s engagement of song culture in the course of his activities—literary, political, amorous, familial, domestic, traveling, business, and leisure—demonstrates the eighteenth-century mixing of oral and written and of popular culture and belles lettres, and shows the significance of oral forms and expression among even the most literate and literary people. Theorizing song performance as social interaction shaped by power relations, this essay calls for a widening of the study of orality to include greater consideration of the past, of the informal and quotidian realm, and of the oral and performative dimensions of literate cultures. Boswell’s diaries depict his everyday life from the 1760s to the 1790s in London and Scotland and on various European sojourns. In them he represents himself and others singing and invoking popular songs in complex ways that disclose dynamics of identity formation and relational power.


“Youth’s the Season Made for Joys,” The Beggar’s Opera:

Center for Studies in Oral Tradition | 21 Parker Hall | Columbia, MO 65211
573.882.9720 (ph) | 573.884.0291 (fax) | | Technical Support