James Boswell Essay - Critical Essays

Boswell, James


James Boswell 1740-1795

Scottish biographer, diarist, essayist, poet, and critic.

For additional information on Boswell's life and works, see LC, Volume 4.

One of the most colorful figures in eighteenth-century English literature, Boswell is esteemed for his inimitable conversational style and pictorial documentation of life in such nonfiction works as Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (1785) and for a masterpiece of English biography, The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791). In this work Boswell firmly established biography as a leading literary form through a conscious attempt to recreate his subject by combining life history with anecdotes and dialogues. Its diversity reflects Boswell's several distinctive characteristics, which include an acute grasp of social setting and human nature, a rigid attention to realistic depiction, a responsive sensibility, and a willingness to engage in public self-analysis and self-exposure. In addition to the Life, Boswell's large collection of journals and letters heightens his reputation as an engagingly introspective writer, unique in vision and authorial voice.

Biographical Information

Boswell was born into a prominent Edinburgh lawyer's family. His father eventually attained positions on the bench of Scotland's highest court and in the peerage; taking the title Lord Auchinleck, he assumed the lordship of a large estate. This privileged social environment greatly aided Boswell's own progression to literary and social prominence. Following a brief, early education in a private school, Boswell was trained in classical literature through a personal tutor who introduced him to Joseph Addison's and Richard Steele's Spectator essays, the elevated prose style, moralistic bent, and Augustan wit of which markedly influenced the tenor and style of Boswell's mature writings. In 1753 Boswell enrolled in the general curriculum at the University of Edinburgh. By the end of his four years there he was entertaining thoughts of becoming a man of letters, his hopes fueled by advice from several eminent Scots, including philosopher David Hume. However, Boswell's father wished him to continue studies in preparation for a legal career; for a while Boswell complied, matriculating at the University of Glasgow for nearly a year. During this period Boswell converted to the then-heavily strictured Roman Catholic Church (and thereby relinquished his right to hold professional office). Eventually Boswell sought refuge with sympathetic Catholics in London in the spring of 1760.

Boswell, whose religious leanings were at this time still tenuous, indulged in a wide-ranging social life in London, mingling in both low and high social circles and making the acquaintance of such literary celebrities as Laurence Sterne and David Garrick and consorting frequently with prostitutes, causing long-term damage to his health. He subsequently requested of his father that he might remain in London and seek a commission with the Foot Guards, a privileged military patrol. Determined to see his son through law training, Auchinleck brought his son back to Scotland. Formore than a year Boswell remained in Scotland, spending much of his time completing law training under his father's tuition. During this time Boswell attended dramatic performances in Edinburgh, kept a journal, and published his first works: pamphlets of dramatic criticism, poetry, and light satire.

Appeasing his father, Boswell passed the Civil Law examination in 1762 and was allowed to return to London and pursue his ambition to join the Foot Guards. Yet, despite considerable inquiry, enlistment of support, and repeated requests of several high contacts, Boswell never obtained the post. While pursuing this ambition, however, Boswell popularized himself as a bright new force on the literary scene, making numerous social calls and acquiring several influential acquaintances. In 1763 he published his first work under his own name, Letters between the Honorable Andrew Erskine, and James Boswell, Esq,, a collection of actual correspondences between Boswell and a friend, both of whom hoped to impress the literati by dint of the extensive literary discussions found in their letters. This work received favorable reviews and sales.

From this point on, Boswell's aims became decidedly literary. For some time he had been endeavoring to meet one of his idols, Samuel Johnson, the renowned author of The Vanity of Human Wishes (1749) and A Dictionary of the English Language (1755). After several failed attempts, Boswell met the aging scholar by accident in a bookseller's shop. Although their initial conversation was brief and marred both by Johnson's gruff manner and by some inappropriate and ludicrous remarks from Boswell, the two soon became close and lasting friends. While set on a literary career, Boswell had reconsidered law as a field which would afford him added respectability. He spent a period of several months studying civil law in Utrecht, Holland. There, while maintaining a rigorous schedule of study, Boswell refined his journal-keeping techniques and produced a staggering amount of material. Boswell left Utrecht in 1764 and embarked on a two-year tour of Europe, corresponding with his London and Edinburgh acquaintances while recording in a journal his experiences, changing surroundings, and successful attempts to meet and intellectually engage such luminaries as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire, and Pasquale Paoli.

Returning to Edinburgh in 1766, Boswell gained admission to the Scottish bar and began a law practice. For the remainder of his life he often traveled on extended visits from Edinburgh to London, spending much of his time there in the company of Johnson and his literary coterie, The Club. Boswell's habit of recording Johnson's conversations on the spot became well known, as did his relentless, occasionally annoying, efforts to extract from Johnson opinions on virtually every imaginable topic. Boswell had become obsessed with accurately recording for posterity the Johnson he came to know so well; and Johnson, greatly valuing Boswell's friendship and vivacity, and also greatly aware of his own abilities as a conversationalist, allowed the unusual arrangement to continue. In 1768 Boswell's first major work appeared, An Account of Corsica, The Journal of a Tour to that Island; and the Memoirs of Pascal Paoli. Well received throughout Britain, it won especial praise from Johnson, who advised Boswell to continue exercising his talents in writing such works, for memoirs and biography, Johnson believed, were fields in which Boswell could excel. Boswell, in turn, concerned himself with Johnson's literary career, fearing that the older writer would grow infirm before publishing all that he was capable of writing. Partly for this reason he planned a tour with Johnson in 1773 to the western islands of Scotland, the Hebrides, hoping that Johnson might publish an account of his trip there. This Johnson did, and it was Boswell's misfortune that his own account, in order not to compete with Johnson's, remained unpublished for over a decade.

With the death of Johnson in 1784, Boswell's life grew decidedly dismal. Saddened and depressed by the loss of this friend who had grown to be a father-figure to him, and plagued by recurrent bouts with gonorrhea, Boswell came to a single resolve: to complete The Life of Samuel Johnson before his death. Although his chief competitors, Hester Thrale and Sir John Hawkins, preceded him by several years in publishing their accounts, Boswell's completed Life, over which he labored with the aid of editor Edmund Malone, immediately superceded all such accounts in scope and compelling narration when it appeared in 1791. A corrected and expanded edition, of the Life, overseen by Boswell and Malone, was published in 1793. Boswell died two years later.

Major Works

Boswell first attracted the widespread attention of his contemporaries with An Account of Corsica, which describes the movement of national liberation in Corsica that Boswell witnessed during his tour of Europe, a history of Corsica culled from a number of sources, and a brief sketch of his meetings and conversations with Paoli, revolutionary leader of the Corsicans in their fight against the Genoese and the French for independence. Boswell followed this with his Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, which recounts the trip he had taken with Johnson through Scotland. The book enlarged the dimensions of travel literature significantly, but it also—most importantly for the study of Boswell—portrays the figure of Samuel Johnson for the first time and in a manner that would typify the style of his most well-known work.

The work that has most forcefully established Boswell's literary reputation through the twentieth century is his Life of Samuel Johnson. In his preface to the Life Boswell wrote that his biography was intended to be an expansion of the procedure employed by William Mason in his "Memoirs" (1775) of Thomas Gray. In this work Mason narrated his subject's life largely through quotation from Gray's letters. Improving upon this, Boswell employed, in addition, liberal use of first-hand accounts by Johnson's friends and of Johnson's own conversation, along with an introspective narrative voice, and a fiction-like structure consisting of vivid scenes linked by such universal concerns as love, fear, morality, and contemplation of the afterlife. Perceived as scrupulously accurate in detail and comprehensiveness, and considered incomparably lively in portraiture, style, and narration, the Life was hailed in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century as the highest achievement in English biography. Because of Boswell's use of personal confession, half-invented dialogue, and Johnson's letters, however, many critics are still uncertain how best to categorize and examine it; it has been studied not only as biography but as drama, tragi-romantic narrative, and psychological autobiography.

Despite the critical praise that has met the Life since its initial publication, Boswell's most striking achievement may have been the private journals that he kept during most of his adult life. Through the discovery of these papers at Malahide Castle, Ireland, and Fettercairne House, Scotland, and the gradual publication thereof, Boswell's reputation as a journal writer continues to rise. The journals have become of central interest to Boswell scholars, and many consider them to be the greatest diaries ever written in English. Frederick A. Pottle has written of Boswell: "All his significant books—The Journal of A Tour to Corsica, The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, and the Life of Johnson—were quarried out of his journal. Though the Life will probably always be considered his greatest artistic achievement, critics and historians will come to see that his central, his unique performance lies in the private record of which he published only samples. It is a rare kind of journal in that it is consistently dramatic." In these private papers Boswell's complex personality—idolseeking, spiritually searching, hypersexual, hypochondriac, exuberant—fully emerges, narrated with a sure conception of scene, character, and motive.

Critical Reception

Publication of the Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides and The Life of Samuel Johnson brought Boswell's writings into serious critical debate. While the latter was highly popular with the reading public, many critics disparaged Boswell for his flouting of established biographical practice both by candidly portraying Johnson's shortcomings and by depicting Boswell's own opinions on matters of literary and social importance, which (they claimed) took up too much space in a purported biography. Critics have also debated the historical accuracy of Boswell's portrayal, questioning whether Boswell had the biographical distance necessary to accurately portray Johnson's life. From the perspective of modern biographical theory, however, Boswell's writings on Johnson are considered groun-breaking achievements, not only for their readability, but for their candid approach to their subject and Boswell's self-awareness of his presence in the narrative. Many contemporary critics weigh the ideal of complete biographical accuracy against the literary merits of the work; while many critics focus on whether Boswell did in fact produce a true-to-life resource for the study of Johnson, Boswell has been lauded by others for his fictional techniques, and his reputation has been increasingly enhanced by examinations of his style, dramatic sensibility, and other aspects of his presentation.

The publication of Boswell's journals enhanced the critical estimation of his contribution to Western literature. These writings have provided critics with the means to compare the versions of events in the Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides and in the Life with what was originally entered in his journals, as well as a means to explore the literary devices Boswell employed in transforming the events into their published accounts. The journals have also been studied for their own sake, and many critics consider them, collectively, to constitute the greatest diary ever written. While Boswell's critical fate has fluctuated, twentieth-century critics agree that he will undoubtedly be remembered for Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, his private journals, and The Life of Samuel Johnson. Although written of the journals, John N. Morris's statement of Boswell's unique artistry may be applied to all three works: "Boswell's is a book of moments—millions of them. It is impossible to speak intelligibly of the form of such a work. It has no form, and yet, again almost paradoxically, this deficiency itself has one of the effects that we have been taught to admire in the willed order of the shapeliest productions of art; here if anywhere, manner and matter are one."

Principal Works

Observations, Good or Bad, Stupid or Clever, Serious or Jocund on Squire Foote's Dramatic Entertainment, entitled, The Minor. By a Genius (criticism) 1760

A View of the Edinburgh Theatre during the Summer Season, 1759, by a Society of Gentleman (criticism) 1760

Letters between The Honourable Andrew Erskine, and James Boswell, Esq. (letters) 1763

Dorando, A Spanish Tale (prose allegory) 1767

An Account of Corsica, The Journal of a Tour to that Island; and the Memoirs of Pascal Paoli (journal and biography) 1768

Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (journal) 1785...

(The entire section is 215 words.)


Paul K. Alkon (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: "Boswell's Control of Aesthetic Distance," University of Toronto Quarterly, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 2, January, 1969, pp. 174-91.

[In the following essay, Alkon discusses devices Boswell uses in the Life of Johnson in order to control the aesthetic distance between author and subject and author and reader.]


Proper control of aesthetic distance was so highly regarded by Johnson that he was sometimes inclined to undervalue biography. Thus in the Idler, No. 84, he argues that autobiography is more useful because "he that recounts the life of another, commonly dwells most upon conspicuous events, lessens the familiarity of his...

(The entire section is 7937 words.)

Robert H. Bell (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "Boswell's Notes toward a Supreme Fiction: From London Journal to Life of Johnson," in Dr. Samuel Johnson and James Boswell, edited by Harold Bloom, pp. 149-63. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986.

[In the essay that follows, Bell considers Boswell's London Journal to be a groundbreaking work in the development of the first-person factual narrative. He commends in particular Boswell's use of personal experience as a means of establishing his literary persona.]

Boswell's London Journal, 1762-1763 reveals a great deal about the author's youthful struggles and tumultuous season in the city. As a vivid, intimate...

(The entire section is 6522 words.)

David Daiches (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "Introduction," in New Light on Boswell: Critical and Historical Essays on the Occasion of the Bicentenary of "The Life of Johnson," edited by Greg Clingham, pp. 1-8. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

[In the following introduction to a collection of essays about Boswell as a biographer, Daiches describes the paradoxes between Boswell's life and character, and his literary style and portrayal of himself.]

James Boswell remains one of the most fascinating and puzzling figures in literary history. Regarded at one time as a shallow egoist who succeeded by some kind of naive mimetic ability in producing one of the greatest of biographies, thus becoming...

(The entire section is 4061 words.)

Marlies K. Danziger (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "Self-Restraint and Self-Display in the Authorial Comments in the Life of Jonson," in New Light on Boswell: Critical and Historical Essays on the Occasion of the Bicentenary of "The Life of Jonson," edited by Greg Clingham, pp. 162-73. Cambridge University Press, 1991.

[In the following essay, Danziger explores the authorial comments of Boswell in the Life of Johnson. In an effort to counteract their typically negative critical reception, Danziger argues that "these comments have their own interest in revealing an older, sadder Boswell trying to come to terms with personal loss, professional disappointment, and his feelings as a displaced Scotsman."]


(The entire section is 5733 words.)

William Paul Yarrow (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: "'Casts a Kind of Glory Round It': Metaphor and The Life of Johnson," in Boswell: Citizen of the World, Man of Letters, edited by Irma S. Lustig, pp. 158-83. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1995.

[In this essay, Yarrow analyzes Boswell's use of metaphor in the Life of Johnson, claiming that it reveals Boswell's effort to originate metaphors and maximize their use.]

The greatest thing in style is to have a command of metaphor. This power cannot be acquired; it is a mark of genius, for to make good metaphors implies an eye for resemblances.

Aristotle, The Poetics


(The entire section is 10061 words.)

Further Reading


Brown, Anthony E. Boswellian Studies: A Bibliography. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1991, 176p.

Bibliography of editions of Boswell's works as well as secondary materials on Boswell published through 1989.

Cochrane, Hamilton E. Boswell's Literary Art: An Annotated Bibliography of Critical Studies, 1900-1985. New York: Garland Publishing, 1992, 162p.

Annotated bibliography of secondary materials on Boswell, including biographies and bibliographies.

Dowling, William C. Introduction to The Boswellian Hero. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1979, pp. 1-19.


(The entire section is 1289 words.)