In the preface to his first book, Boswell wrote, “I have an ardent desire for literary fame.” Even in his early twenties he knew that he would seek that fame as a biographer. He was less certain of his subject. Among his early candidates was the Scottish philosopher David Hume. Although the two quarreled in 1763 because Boswell published some of Hume’s private comments, Boswell had not abandoned this project as late as 1776, when he interviewed the dying Hume to probe the philosopher’s atheistic views. During his Grand Tour in the mid-1760’s, Boswell met Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and he unsuccessfully sought out Frederick the Great. Boswell interrupted his Italian sojourn in 1765 to travel to rugged Corsica in pursuit of General Pasquale Paoli, leader of the island’s abortive struggle for independence. Although this excursion led to An Account of Corsica (1768) and to Boswell’s parading about London and the 1768 Stratford Jubilee as “Corsica Boswell,” Boswell’s reputation lives primarily because of his biography of Samuel Johnson.
When Boswell came to London in 1762, Johnson’s name was already on his list of prospective biographical subjects, and the young man hoped that his fellow Scot Thomas Sheridan would effect an introduction. Unhappily for that prospect, Sheridan and Johnson had quarreled. The bookseller Tom Davies had tried without success to bring Boswell and Johnson together. Then, on the evening of May 16, 1763, a date sacred to all Johnsonians, Boswell was sitting in the back room of Davies’ shop when the bookseller, echoing Horatio’s line about the ghost of old Hamlet, called out, “Look, my Lord, it comes.”
The twenty-two-year-old Boswell’s first encounter with the fifty-three-year-old Johnson did not begin auspiciously. Knowing Johnson’s aversion to the Scots, Boswell asked Davies not to mention Boswell’s nationality. Davies promptly told Johnson that Boswell had come from Scotland. Boswell acknowledged his nativity but apologized: “I cannot help it.” Johnson acerbically replied, “That, Sir, I find, is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help,” alluding to the recent influx into England of Scottish place-seekers. Johnson next criticized David Garrick, and when Boswell interrupted to defend the great actor who had accompanied Johnson to London before Boswell had been born, Johnson replied, “Sir, I have known David Garrick longer than you have done: and I know no right you have to talk to me on the subject.” By the time Johnson left, Boswell was crushed, but Davies reassured him. “I can see he likes you very well.”
Davies was right. Although over the next twenty-one years Boswell and Johnson spent a total of only some four hundred days together, they corresponded frequently, and by 1772 Boswell had resolved to write Johnson’s life. By the following year, the two men were speaking openly about the project. In 1773, Johnson greatly advanced Boswell’s plans by joining his young friend for about one hundred days touring the west coast of Scotland and the Hebrides. An inveterate diarist, Boswell faithfully recorded Johnson’s actions and words on this Highland jaunt, as he invariably did whenever the two men were together. Boswell had hoped to publish an account of their travels; but Johnson preempted him with his own book on the jaunt, and Boswell’s friends urged him not to print his account while Johnson lived.
To fill in his knowledge of Johnson’s early life and to collect material for his future book, Boswell continually probed Johnson. “If, Sir, you were shut up in a castle, and a newborn child with you, what would you do?” Such questioning could provoke Johnson, who once accused Boswell of having only two topics, “yourself, and me,” adding, “I am sick of them both.” Undeterred, Boswell continued to ask questions and to put Johnson into unfamiliar situations to see how the latter would react. The tour of Scotland is the most extended example: How would a man who lived in the city and had no affection for Scotland fare north of the Tweed? Similarly, he orchestrated a meeting between the rakish political liberal John Wilkes and the moralistic conservative Johnson to see how the two would get on. The meeting proved congenial. It also provided one of the great set pieces in Boswell’s biography, as he knew it would.
By the time of Johnson’s death on December 13, 1784, Boswell had gathered volumes of information gleaned from Johnson and other sources, including some surreptitiously copied extracts from...
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