History of Literature

James Boswell



James Boswell

James Boswell by Sir Joshua Reynolds


James Boswell

Scottish biographer

born October 29, 1740, Edinburgh, Scotland
died May 19, 1795, London, England

friend and biographer of Samuel Johnson (Life of Johnson, 2 vol., 1791). The 20th-century publication of his journals proved him to be also one of the world’s greatest diarists.

Edinburgh and London
Boswell’s father, Alexander Boswell, advocate and laird of Auchinleck in Ayrshire from 1749, was raised to the bench with the judicial title of Lord Auchinleck in 1754. The Boswells were an old and well-connected family, and James was subjected to the strong pressure of an ambitious family.

Boswell hated the select day school to which he was sent at age 5, and from 8 to 13 he was taught at home by tutors. From 1753 to 1758 he went through the arts course at the University of Edinburgh. Returning to the university in 1758 to study law, he became enthralled by the theatre and fell in love with a Roman Catholic actress. Lord Auchinleck thought it prudent to send him to the University of Glasgow, where he attended the lectures of Adam Smith. In the spring of 1760 he ran away to London. He was, he soon found, passionately fond of metropolitan culture, gregarious, high-spirited, sensual, and attractive to women; and London offered just the combination of gross and refined pleasures that seemed to fulfill him. At this time he contracted gonorrhea, an affliction that he was to endure many times in the course of his life.

From 1760 to 1762 Boswell studied law at home under strict supervision and sought release from boredom in gallantry, in a waggish society called the Soaping Club, and in scribbling. His publications (many in verse and most of them anonymous) give no indication of conspicuous talent.

When Boswell came of age, he was eager to enter the foot guards. Lord Auchinleck agreed that if he passed his trials in civil law, he would receive a supplementary annuity and be allowed to go to London to seek a commission through influence. Boswell passed the examination in July 1762.

Anticipating great happiness, Boswell began, in the autumn, the journal that was to be the central expression of his genius. His great zest for life was not fully savoured until life was all written down, and he had a rare faculty for imaginative verbal reconstruction. His journal is much more dramatic than most because he wrote up each event as though he were still living through it, as if he had no knowledge of anything that had happened later. People in his journal talk and are given their characteristic gestures.

Boswell’s second London visit lasted from November 1762 to August 1763. Soon after his arrival, he was informed of the birth in Scotland of a son, Charles, for whom he arranged Anglican Baptism. The mother (Peggy Doig) was probably a servant. He met Oliver Goldsmith, the novelist, playwright, and poet, as well as John Wilkes, the radical politician and polemicist. And on May 16, 1763, in the back parlour of the actor and bookseller Thomas Davies, he secured an unexpected introduction to Samuel Johnson, whose works he admired and whom he had long been trying to meet. Johnson was rough with him, but Boswell kept his temper, went to call a week later, and found himself liked—a great friendship was initiated. Johnson was 53 years old when they met, Boswell 22. There was condescension on both sides on account of differences in rank and intelligence. Having become genuinely convinced that the scheme to join the guards was not practicable, Boswell capitulated to his father and consented to become a lawyer. It was agreed that he should spend a winter studying civil law at Utrecht and should then make a modest foreign tour.

Continental tour
In Holland Boswell befriended and unsuccessfully courted the novelist Isabella van Tuyll van Serooskerken (later called Isabelle de Charrière). He had been deeply affected by Johnson’s piety and on Christmas Day, in the ambassador’s chapel at The Hague, received communion for the first time in the Church of England. His pious program proved stimulating for a time but palled when it had lost its novelty. He received word that his little boy had died. In the depression that ensued he had recurring nightmares of being hanged. He was discouraged to find that dissipation brought him more happiness than chastity and hard work, and he soon lapsed into his former promiscuity.

From Utrecht, Boswell traveled to Berlin in the company of the old Jacobite Earl Marischal, friend and counselor of Frederick the Great, but he was never able to meet the king. Passing through Switzerland (December 1764), he secured interviews with both Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire. Boswell stayed nine months in Italy, devoting himself systematically to sightseeing. At Naples he established an intimacy with Wilkes (then outlawed) and traveled with Lord Mountstuart, eldest son of the earl of Bute, the chief target of Wilkes’s scurrilities.

The most original act of his life followed when he made a six weeks’ tour of the island of Corsica (autumn 1765) to interview the heroic Corsican chieftain Pasquale de Paoli, then engaged in establishing his country’s independence of Genoa. Paoli succumbed to his charm and became his lifelong friend. On his return to the mainland, Boswell sent off paragraphs to the newspapers, mingling facts with fantastic political speculation.

James Boswell

Scottish lawyer and laird
Back in Scotland, Boswell was admitted to the Faculty of Advocates on July 26, 1766, and for 17 years practiced law at Edinburgh with complete regularity and a fair degree of assiduity. His cherished trips to London were by no means annual and until 1784 were always made during the vacations. He was an able courtroom lawyer, especially in criminal cases, but in Scotland neither fortune nor fame could be won in the criminal court.

In February 1768 Boswell published An Account of Corsica, The Journal of a Tour to That Island; and Memoirs of Pascal Paoli and stepped into fame. France had unmasked its intention of annexing the island, and people were greedy for information about Corsica and Paoli. Motives of propaganda caused him to present himself in the book as completely naive and to cut the tour to a mere frame for the memoirs of Paoli, but the result is still pleasing. Paoli, probably wisely, is presented in a manner reminiscent of that which the ancient Greek biographer Plutarch employed in his lives of great men.

Between 1766 and 1769 Boswell amused himself with various well-hedged schemes of marriage, maintaining meantime a liaison with a young Mrs. Dodds. Their daughter, Sally, like Charles, seems to have died in infancy. Boswell ended by marrying (November 1769) his first cousin, Margaret Montgomerie.

During the first few years of his marriage, Boswell was on the whole happy, hard-working, faithful to his wife, and confident of getting a seat in Parliament, a good post in the government, or at the very least a Scots judgeship. Paoli visited him in Scotland in 1771; in 1773 he was elected to The Club, the brilliant circle that Sir Joshua Reynolds had formed around Dr. Johnson; and later in the year Johnson made with him the famous tour of the Hebrides. He ultimately had five healthy and promising children. He was made an examiner of the Faculty of Advocates and one of the curators of the Advocates’ Library; he served twice as master of the Canongate Kilwinning Lodge of Masons and declined nomination for the grand mastership of Scotland. But by 1776 he began to feel strong intimations of failure. A headlong entry into Ayrshire politics had ranged him in opposition to Henry Dundas, who was then emerging as a political despot in the management of the Scottish elections. His practice was not becoming more notable. He began to drink heavily to replenish his spirits, not, as formerly, to give them vent. He returned to his old traffic with women of the town when separated from his wife by distance, by her pregnancy, or by her frequent complaints. As early as 1778 it was obvious that she was critically ill with tuberculosis.

Between 1777 and 1783 Boswell published in The London Magazine a series of 70 essays, significantly entitled The Hypochondriack, which deserve to be better known, though they do not engage his full powers. At the end of 1783, in the hope of attracting the attention of William Pitt’s new government, he published a pamphlet attacking the East India Bill that had been introduced by Charles James Fox, Pitt’s great rival. Pitt sent a note of thanks but made no move to employ him. Boswell succeeded to Auchinleck in 1782 and managed his estate with attention and some shrewdness. But he thought he could be happy only in London and encouraged himself in the groundless notion that he could be more successful at the English than at the Scottish bar.

Life of Johnson and London
Johnson died on December 13, 1784. Boswell decided to take his time in writing the Life but to publish his journal of the Hebridean tour as a first installment. In the spring of 1785 he went to London to prepare the work for the press. The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, with Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (1785) tops all the others published later. It comes from the soundest and happiest period of Boswell’s life, the narrative of the tour is interesting in itself, and it provides us with 101 consecutive days with Johnson. The book was a best-seller, but it provoked the scornful charge of personal fatuity that has dogged Boswell’s name ever since. His intelligence was not really in question. But he deliberately defied the basic literary rule that no author who wishes respect as a man may publish his own follies without suggesting compensatory strengths of character. Boswell analyzed and recorded his own vanity and weakness with the objectivity of a historian, and in his Johnsonian scenes he ruthlessly subordinated his own personality, reporting the blows that Johnson occasionally gave him without constantly reassuring the reader that he understood the implications of what he had written.

In 1786 Boswell was called to the English bar from the Inner Temple and moved his family to London. Thereafter he had almost no legal practice. His principal business was the writing of the Life of Johnson, which he worked at irregularly but with anxious attention.

Though straitened in income, Boswell gave his children expensive educations. He visited Edinburgh only once after his emigration and then almost surreptitiously. His wife pined for Auchinleck and insisted on being taken there when her health grew desperate. Boswell felt that he had to be in London in order to finish the Life and to be at the call of the earl of Lonsdale, who had given him unexpected encouragement and caused him to be elected recorder of Carlisle. When his wife died (June 4, 1789), he was not at her side; and when he tried to detach himself from Lonsdale, he was treated with shocking brutality.

The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. was published in two volumes on May 16, 1791. Contemporary criticism set the pattern of acclaim for the work and derision for its author. Boswell took intense pleasure in his literary fame but felt himself to be a failure. His later years were prevailingly unhappy. His eccentricities of manner seemed merely self-indulgent in a man of 50 or more: people were afraid to talk freely in his presence, fearing that their talk would be reported, and his habit of getting drunk and noisy at other people’s tables (he was never a solitary drinker) made him a difficult guest in any case. His five children, however, loved him deeply, and he never lost the solicitous affection of a few friends, including the great Shakespeare editor Edmund Malone, who had encouraged him in his writing of the Life of Johnson. Boswell saw the second edition of the Life through the press (July 1793) and was at work on the third when he died in 1795.

For long it was believed that Boswell’s private papers had been destroyed shortly after his death, but the bulk of them were recovered in the 1920s at Malahide Castle near Dublin and sold to an American collector, Ralph H. Isham, by Boswell’s great-great-grandson, Lord Talbot de Malahide. These papers, as well as others found at Malahide Castle during the 1930s, were united with another portion discovered by a professor, Claude Colleer Abbott, in Aberdeenshire in the home of descendants of Boswell’s executor and sold to Yale University, which, under the editorship of Frederick A. Pottle, began a systematic program of their multivolume publication, beginning with Boswell’s London Journal, 1762–63 (1950). The papers give an extraordinary picture of an enlightened yet tormented man, a participant in the intellectual debates of his time who was often driven by sensual appetites and religious fears.

The Life of Johnson will always be regarded as Boswell’s greatest achievement, although, since the publication of his papers, its unique values can be seen to be derivative. It is the stretches of Johnson’s conversation that make it superior, and those conversations were lifted bodily from the journal, sometimes with so little change that the journal leaves served as printer’s copy. The extended commercial publication of the journal, by proving his ability to compete with 20th-century authors on their own terms, has confirmed and added to Boswell’s stature as artist. It also for the first time gives the general reader a properly complex portrait.

Frederick A. Pottle




Type of work: Biography
Author: James Boswell (1740-1795)
Time of plot: Eighteenth century
Locale: England
First published: 1791

To lovers of English literature, May 16 is a red-letter day second only to April 23, the birth and death date of William Shakespeare, for this is the anniversary of the momentous meeting of James Boswell and Samuel Johnson in the back room of Tom Davies' bookshop in 1763, and the appearance, twenty-eight years later, of the consequence of that encounter, Boswell's immortal Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D., perhaps the greatest biography in the English language.
Boswell had a great subject, but others shared this advantage without being able to utilize it as well. Barely a day after Johnson's death on December 13, 1784, the St. James Chronicle for December 14-16 reported,

Biographers are very busy in preparing Materials for the Life of Dr. Samuel Johnson. Many, we are told, are the Candidates, but the principal which are mentioned are Sir John Hawkins, and James Boswell, Esq. his itinerant Companion through the Highlands of Scotland.

Biographers were busy indeed. Less than two weeks later, William Cooke brought out his Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (December 27, 1784), and the next month saw the publication of Thomas Tyers' "Biographical Sketch of Dr. Johnson" in the Gentleman's Magazine for January,
1785. Boswell's two chief rivals for the role of principal biographer were Hester Lynch Thrale Piozzi, who brought out her Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson LL.D. in
1786, and Sir John Hawkins, whose Life of Dr. Samuel Johnson appeared the following year.
Hester Thrale Piozzi had known Johnson nearly as long as Boswell had; after their first meeting in January, 1765, Johnson had spent as much time at the Thrale homes in Streatham and Southwark as he did in the various residences he occupied in the last two decades of his life. Piozzi therefore knew him intimately; in fact, after the death of her first husband, Johnson hoped to become her second. Her marriage to an Italian music master instead effectively ended her friendship with Johnson, and while her book contains valuable information, it is colored by that final rift. Moreover, Johnson could be a difficult houseguest, a fact that affected her portrait.
Hawkins, too, could be less than charitable. Like Piozzi, he had spent considerable time with Johnson: The two had met in the 1740s, and in December, 1784, a group of London booksellers turned to him to edit Johnson's works and to write what they assumed would be the official life. This choice was logical, since Johnson had named Hawkins his literary executor; hence, he would have access to unpublished materials not available to anyone else. Hawkins is the source for the story of Johnson's celebration of Charlotte Lennox's first novel, The Life of Harriet Stuart (1750), and for the account of his stabbing his dropsical legs to remove fluid, but Hawkins also revealed— or invented—many faults. Hawkins maintained that he was writing a biography, not a panegyric, but George Colman the Elder expressed the general sentiment toward the work when he wrote in the St. James Chronicle for June 12-14, 1787,

Thee, Johnson, both dead and alive we may note
In the fam'd Biographical Line,
When living the Life of a SAVAGE [Richard Savage]
you wrote,
Now many a Savage writes thine.

Within a year Hawkins' book was largely forgotten, not to be reprinted in its entirety until the twentieth century.
Boswell, too, refused to ignore Johnson's flaws. When Hannah More asked him in 1785 to play down Johnson's "asperities," Boswell replied that "he would not cut off his claws, nor make a tiger a cat, to please anybody." Yet is is clear that Boswell's work is written "with admiration and reverence," the last four words of the Life. Such an attitude could occasionally distort the record as much as Piozzi's lack of charity. Thus, Boswell, who did not meet Johnson until after the death of Tetty, Johnson's wife, refused to include any material suggesting marital difficulties. Hawkins, who knew the couple, paints a darker but probably truer picture of the marriage.
In general, though, Boswell's account is accurate. As early as 1764, within a year of meeting Johnson, he wrote to him, "It shall be my study to do what I can to render your life happy; and if you die before me, I shall endeavor to do honor to your memory." For almost as long as the two knew each other, then, Boswell was thinking of writing the Life, and by 1773 Johnson had accepted Boswell's role as his biographer. A copious diarist who was also blessed with an excellent memory—even Piozzi, who cared little for Boswell, granted him that—he was indefatigable in tracking down information about his subject.
As he truly said, "I have spared no pains in obtaining materials concerning him, from every quarter where I could discover that they were to be found"; he offered as an example "that I have sometimes been obliged to run half over London, in order to fix a date correctly."
Boswell has been accused of occupying too prominent a place in the Life, a charge to which he himself was sensitive. In 1785 he had produced a kind of trial run of the biography with his Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, the account of his trip with Johnson to the Scottish Highlands in 1773. In response to criticism of that work, Boswell promised to place himself more in the background in the longer work, which nonetheless remains a dual biography. Although Boswell spent fewer than five hundred days with Johnson over the course of their twenty-year friendship, the Life suggests that they were inseparable. Boswell creates this effect by focusing on those times when they were together: Less than a fifth of the book deals with the fifty-four years of Johnson's life before their meeting, and, conversely, more than a hundred pages are devoted to the last year of his life.
Yet he never allows himself to eclipse his subject. Boswell's wife, who found Johnson coarse, once remarked of her husband's relationship with the older man that she had often seen a man leading a bear, but never before had she observed a bear leading a man. In the Life Boswell always lets the bear lead, or at least appear to lead. Recognizing Johnson's genius, he drew on and expanded the technique pioneered by William Mason in his Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Mr. Thomas Gray (1775), which incorporates the poet's letters and observations. Some 30 percent of Boswell's Life consists of Johnson's letters—334 of them, sometimes edited—publications, manuscripts ranging from legal briefs to prayers and meditations that first reached the public in the biography and famous conversations. When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created his detective pair, he modeled them on Boswell and Johnson, giving Watson Boswell's role of recording companion.
Boswell not only enriched his book with Johnson's comments but also provided an immeasurable gift to posterity. As great as Johnson is as a writer, he was equally gifted as a speaker, and most people who quote Johnson—he is among the most quoted of Englishmen—are actually quoting from the Life:

Sir, a woman preaching is like a dog's walking on his hind
legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it
done at all.
I look upon it, that he who does not mind his belly will
hardly mind anything else.
A decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization.
Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.
In lapidary inscriptions a man is not upon oath.
No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.
When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for
there is in London all that life can afford.
It is better to live rich, than to die rich.
Clear your mind of cant.

The list could go on, and in the fifteenth edition of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations (1980) it does, with some hundred entries drawn from Boswell's work. "I am absolutely certain," Boswell wrote to William Temple in February, 1788,

that my mode of biography, which gives not only a History of Johnson's visible progress through the world, and of his publications, but a view of his mind in his letters and conversations, is the most perfect that can be conceived, and will be more of a Life than any work that has ever yet appeared.

Readers who have called for more than two hundred editions of the work since it first appeared have vindicated the method.
To elicit comments, Boswell was willing to risk angering his great friend. Johnson was terrified of death; once, when Boswell pursued the topic too diligently, Johnson replied, "Give us no more of this," and added "sternly, 'Don't let us meet to-morrow.' " On another occasion Boswell's probing brought forth the rebuke, "Sir, you have but two topics, yourself and me. I am sick of both." Boswell's recording of such reactions prompted nineteenth century critics such as Thomas Babington Macau-lay to call him a great fool, but Boswell's genius lies in part in his readiness to play the fool to reveal his subject.
More characteristic of Boswell is his role as stage manager, introducing Johnson into various situations to see how he would react and so reveal his nature. The trip to the Scottish Highlands is a classic example of Boswell's ability to maneuver Johnson into new conditions and then observe (and record) what happens. Another instance is his arranging Johnson's meeting with the rakish, Whig-gish John Wilkes, whose principles and life Johnson detested. Boswell notes that "they had even attacked one another with some asperity in their writings." Boswell knew that if he asked Johnson to dine with Wilkes, he would meet with an absolute refusal, so instead he told Johnson that Edward Dilly would love to have him to dinner but feared he might object to Wilkes's presence. Johnson responded as Boswell hoped, saying that he could dine with anyone on occasion.
Boswell knew how to describe scenes as well as create them, often incorporating what are essentially stage directions. Of a visit to Dr. William Adams, Master of Pembroke College, Oxford, which Johnson had attended for a little more than a year, Boswell wrote, "We walked with Dr. Adams into the master's garden, and into the common room, johnson. (after a reverie of meditation), "Ay! Here I used to play at draughts with Phil. Jones and Fludyer." When Boswell mentioned that their friend Thomas Percy was writing an account of the wolf, Johnson replied, " 'I should like to see The History of the
Grey Rat, by Thomas Percy, D.D.....' (laughing
immoderately)." On another occasion, Johnson responds to Boswell "in an animated tone." These comments let the reader see and hear Johnson; they animate the words on the page.
Boswell's dramatic sense informs even the structure of the biography, which is loosely assembled around a variety of scenes like the visit to Dr. Adams or the dinner with Wilkes. Chronology is merely a convenient thread on which to string these various gems. As the life unfolds, Johnson, though unchanging, emerges as a three-dimensional figure, for Boswell not only offers his own observations and allows Johnson to display himself but also presents others' perceptions, recording the views of Oliver Goldsmith, Edmund Burke, and many others. The cast of Boswell's Life is almost as great as that of a nineteenth century Russian novel.
The effect of the biography is also similar to that of War and Peace (1865-1869) or Anna Karenina (1875-1877). Just as those novels provide a social history of Russia, so the Life serves as a portrait of late eighteenth century England. On the title page Boswell claimed that his book exhibits "a View of Literature and Literary Men in Great-Britain, for Near Half a Century," and the book has shaped posterity's view of Johnson's literary world quite as much as it has created an image of Johnson himself.
That the Life did establish a picture of Johnson is undeniable; when one speaks of Boswell's Johnson one is referring at once to the book and to its central figure. It is always "Dr." Johnson, though he did not receive an honorary LL.D. until 1765 and shied away from the title after he got it. Johnson is always in vigorous middle age, always at the pinnacle of the literary world rather than struggling up its slopes, in comfortable circumstances and hence slovenly by choice rather than by necessity. In dedicating the work to Sir Joshua Reynolds, Boswell was not merely directing the book to one of Johnson's closest friends; he was also choosing someone who shared his own view of portraiture. Reynolds maintained that the artist should present not the model itself but rather a mental image or impression of that model. Boswell's Johnson is heroic—in the "Advertisement to the Second Edition" Boswell compares him to Odysseus—at once larger than life and quintessentially human.
Asked whether he had assumed a task greater than he had anticipated in agreeing to compile his Dictionary of the English Language (1755), Johnson replied, "Sir, I knew very well what I was undertaking,—and very well how to do it,—and have done it very well." (One may note parenthetically that, again, posterity retains this observation only because of Boswell.) For seven years, in declining health and fortune, Boswell labored at a biography that must have seemed unending, but even if he did not realize at first what he was undertaking, in the end he too did it very well indeed. His work completed, in the "Advertisement to the Second Edition" he boasted, "I have Johnsonised the land," and so he had. Edmund Burke and Macaulay are but two of many who have noted that great as Johnson was, he appears still greater in Boswell's book, and many who have never knowingly read a page of Johnson have encountered his ideas and words because of the Life. Robert Anderson, himself a biographer of Johnson, summed up Boswell's achievement well when he wrote in the Gentleman's Magazine (1795),

With some venial exceptions on the score of egotism and indiscriminate admiration, his work exhibits the most copious, interesting, and finished picture of the life and opinions of an eminent man that was ever executed, and is justly esteemed one of the most instructive and entertaining books in the English language.


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