Though Boswell began the biography in 1786, shortly after the death of Johnson, he had been planning it ever since their famous meeting on May 16, 1763. He had therefore carefully recorded in his diaries and memory everything related to his subject, and he had acted as prompter and stage manager to draw Johnson out. Some of the most memorable episodes in the book, such as the Tory Johnson’s meeting with the Whiggish John Wilkes, resulted from Boswell’s manipulation.
To create what he called his “Flemish portrait” of Johnson, Boswell let his subject speak for himself through his letters and conversation, thus drawing on the techniques of drama and the epistolary novel to enliven his work.
Boswell does not gloss over Johnson’s flaws. As he told Hannah Moore, “He would not cut off [Johnson’s] claws, nor make a tiger a cat, to please anybody.” Here are Johnson’s prejudices, his stubbornness, and his frequent intellectual bullying.
Here, too, though, are Johnson’s compassion for those less fortunate, his conviviality (led him to create a number of literary clubs), his common sense, and his brilliance.
Because Johnson knew all the important writers of the period, his biography also serves as a literary history of late 18th century England.
Johnson’s writings would have earned for him a high place in English literature even if he and Boswell had never met. Without their friendship, though, Johnson’s...
James Boswell’s life of Samuel Johnson has often been considered the greatest biography produced in the English language, and it has probably had more readers than any other biography written in English. Among the works published during Boswell’s lifetime, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. stood out as the greatest for almost a century and a half. A new estimate of Boswell’s work has had to be taken since 1950, however, for much of Boswell’s writing was lost in manuscript until the 1920’s. During the period between 1927 and 1949, Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Heyward Isham, a collector, brought together the Boswell papers that had been stored at Malahide Castle, near Dublin, Ireland, and the Forbes collection, which had accidentally passed into the hands of one of Boswell’s executors and descended to the latter’s heirs. Some of the papers were published by Isham, who sold the entire collection to Yale University in 1949 and 1950. The university began to publish volumes of the papers under the general title of The Yale Editions of the Private Papers of James Boswell. Through such collections of his writings as Boswell’s London Journal, 1762-1763 (1950), Boswell in Holland, 1763-1764 (1952), and Boswell on the Grand Tour: Germany and Switzerland, 1764 (1953), Boswell emerged as a splendid writer of journals. This fact, however, does not detract from his stature as the author of the biography of Johnson, nor will these more recently published works replace the biography as the most important of Boswell’s books, although critical opinion may be modified to grant Boswell greater stature in literature than he once had.
Readers now know that The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. is based on materials that Boswell had recorded in the copious journals he kept during the greater part of his adult life. This is not to say, however, that the biography is merely a transcription of materials from those journals. From present knowledge of the papers it can be seen that Boswell was an artist in biography, choosing carefully what suited his needs and goals. Even those who feel that Boswell intrudes too much into the biography must now recognize that Boswell took some pains to omit much material about Johnson in which Boswell figured. Those who feel that Boswell intrudes too much into the work possibly overlook the fact that during Johnson’s life, Boswell was Johnson’s friend and spent from four hundred to five hundred days with his subject, thus becoming himself a part of Johnson’s life and the Johnsonian environment.
Boswell’s method was to record information about Johnson in his journals. Sometimes the material was recorded daily, but on occasion Boswell fell behind and had to rely on his memory—a phenomenal one—recalling events that had transpired in periods of four or five days and evenings. It is notable, too, that Boswell was careful to prompt Johnson into conversation, often asking what seem to present-day readers to be obvious or absurd questions in order to goad Johnson into making remarks worthy of record. One such question noted by critics is that in which Boswell asked Johnson what he would do if given the solitary care of a...