James Boswell

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Article abstract: Boswell was not only the author of the English-speaking world’s greatest biography but also a distinguished autobiographer in his voluminous journals and letters.

Early Life

James Boswell was the eldest son of Alexander Boswell of Ayrshire, a judge who, when raised to the bench of Scotland’s highest court, took the courtesy title of Lord Auchinleck. Both James’s parents descended from upper-class families with connections not only with nobility but also with royalty. His mother was weak and timid, while his father was a somber, stern disciplinarian who wanted his firstborn to follow him in a legal career and looked with consistent disfavor on both James’s writing and his preference of London’s society to Scotland’s. The contour of Boswell’s literary career reflects his divided allegiance between his pride in his ancient Scottish heritage and love of Highland characteristics, on the one hand, and his zestful fascination with London’s intellectual and sensual enticements, on the other. This tension was to nourish his creative imagination.

From 1753 to 1758, Boswell took undergraduate arts courses at the University of Edinburgh, and then, in 1759, he was accepted to the University of Glasgow to study law. There, he much preferred the lectures on philosophy and rhetoric by Adam Smith, who had not yet published The Wealth of Nations (1776) but impressed Boswell with his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). In the spring of 1760, Boswell interrupted his academic term to run away for what became a three-month stay in London, during which he briefly embraced not only actresses but also the Roman Catholic faith.

Little is known about this first London sojourn, but much information is available concerning his next London trip, in 1762, for by then Boswell had begun the detailed diaries that he was to maintain for the rest of his life. Boswell’s London Journal, 1762-1763 (1950) highlights his encounters with prominent politicians and writers as well as his womanizing. The book is carefully organized according to the rise-and-fall rhythms of dramatic action, with Boswell featuring himself as a talented but directionless young man, not knowing whether to become a lawyer, guards officer, or author.

As a diarist, Boswell was devoid of pomp or even dignity; he was willing to show himself a fool or a boor. The reader is beguiled by Boswell’s candor, high spirits, and capacity for vivid self-portraiture. The personality he disclosed is a deeply divided one, full of contrarieties—both cocksure and insecure; romantic about love, yet rakish about women; conservative in his politics and religion, yet anarchic in his conduct.

Boswell’s first year in London included the pivotal event of his life: his meeting with Samuel Johnson on May 16, 1763. The scene is memorable, as described in the greatest of literary biographies, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (1791). Young Boswell, in his twenty-third year, having heard that Dr. Johnson frequented John Davies’ bookshop, had already gone there several times in the hope of meeting Johnson. When Davies saw Johnson through the shop’s glass door, his awestricken voice in announcing the doctor’s arrival reminded Boswell of Horatio announcing the arrival of his father’s ghost to Hamlet: “Look, my Lord, it comes.” Davies introduced the men to each other, roguishly indicating that Boswell came from Scotland. Aware that Johnson despised Scots, Boswell stuttered apologetically, “I do indeed come from Scotland, but I cannot help it.” Johnson slammed back, “That Sir, I find, is what a great many of your countrymen cannot help.” In London Journal, 1762-1763, Boswell records no further dialogue for this encounter; in The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. , however, he relates two...

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more pages of conversation on a variety of topics. He concludes: “I was satisfied that though there was a roughness in his manner, there was no ill-nature in his disposition.” Eight days later, Johnson received Boswell in his Inner Temple chambers. By June 13, he invited him to “come to me as often as you can. I shall be glad to see you.” The world’s most famous literary friendship was sealed, with each man ultimately to owe his reputation to the other.

Life’s Work

By August, 1763, Boswell had left England for what was to become a three-year sojourn on the Continent, ostensibly to study civil law at Utrecht. He did maintain a studious regimen in Holland but also found time for a long affair with “Zelide” (Belle de Zuylen), though her Deism shocked his Presbyterian soul. After a chill ten months, Boswell left Holland to undertake—against his father’s wishes—a grand tour of Europe. Boswell on the Grand Tour: Germany and Switzerland, 1764 (1953), is Boswell’s most interesting travel narrative, spotlighting his interviews with Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire in, respectively, Lausanne and Ferney.

Boswell was as determined to meet these two foremost contemporaneous European writers as he had been to meet Johnson; throughout his life, he was to pursue Great Men, usually with great success. His motives were multiple: He sought these men partly out of adventurousness and curiosity to know extraordinary individuals (in addition to the above-named, Boswell pursued the philosophers David Hume and Lord Kames, authors Laurence Sterne and Oliver Goldsmith, politician John Wilkes, actor David Garrick, General Pascal Paoli). Largely, however, Boswell was seeking a surrogate father—someone with whom he could exchange the respect and affection which his own censorious father denied him. The basically benign yet authoritative Johnson, thirty years his senior, satisfied this hunger admirably.

Boswell approached Rousseau by writing him a letter in French, in which he asked him how to lead the good life. The two met six times and parted on excellent terms. With Voltaire also he had several long talks, mostly consisting of debates on religion which Boswell instigated to provoke Voltaire’s defense of his skeptical views. The rest of Boswell’s Continental travels are recounted in two overlapping books, both culled from his diaries: An Account of Corsica, the Journal of a Tour to That Island (1768) and Boswell on the Grand Tour: Italy, Corsica, and France, 1765-1766 (1955). The latter text concentrates on his obsessive sexual profligacy, particularly his simultaneous pursuit of two women in Siena. The former focuses on the dignified and colorful leader of Corsica’s battle for independence from Genoa, General Paoli, whom Boswell considers a heroic figure. When Paoli was later exiled from vanquished Corsica, Boswell arranged a warm welcome for him in London, where Paoli became a member of Johnson’s inner circle. Boswell’s An Account of Corsica, the Journal of a Tour to That Island proved a spectacular success, was translated into four languages, and made him well-known at the age of twenty-seven.

Boswell in Search of a Wife, 1766-1769 (1956) has a self-explanatory subject: Back in Scotland, Boswell dallied with a number of women but finally married a distant cousin, Margaret Montgomery, of whom his father disapproved because she was poor. Boswell and Margaret were married on the same day—November 19, 1769—as his father was remarried, his first wife having died in 1766. Relations between the two couples remained cold. While Boswell cared for Margaret and continually resolved to improve his behavior, he neglected her for prostitutes, gambling jousts, and annual jaunts to jolly London.

In the autumn of 1773, Boswell and Johnson undertook a long-planned journey to western Scotland and the Hebrides. Both published accounts of this adventure: Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775) is a conventional, sober travel text, impersonal in perspective. Boswell’s The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, with Samuel Johnson, LL. D. (1785) is much livelier, essentially constituting a vivid portrait of a great personality, the famous Johnson, on a rare holiday away from his intellectual labors and associates in London. The drama which Boswell narrates revolves around the crusty, sedentary sixty-four-year old literary dictator astride horses in wild country or meeting provincial, often primitive people in the Highlands. Boswell’s method of composition was to jot down sketchy notes every evening during the trip, then fill them out the following morning while their references remained fresh to his memory. He showed considerable skill in stage-managing confrontations, as when he asked a man whose views he knew Johnson detested, Lord Monboddo, to invite them to his residence. The two elderly gentlemen at first clashed but gradually came to agree on several topics and parted warm friends. Boswell’s London Journal, 1762-1763 is not only his best sustained narrative but also a helpful trial run for the innovative fusion of memoir, character sketches, and literary history that characterizes his master work, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.

This biography, six years in the writing, demonstrates superlative literary skills. It treats the main events of Johnson’s life until his death in 1784, emphasizing Johnson’s often brilliant and always forceful conversational powers. Boswell was fortunate in his central subject: Johnson had vigor, courage, assertiveness to the point of dogmatism, odd mannerisms, a grotesque appearance, an eruptive temper, a profound mind, and striking wit—his was a great personality. Other strong characters have been weakly portrayed, however, and Johnson had already been inadequately depicted in Sir John Hawkins’ The Life of Samuel Johnson (1787), which Boswell resented as often inaccurate, as well as injurious to Johnson’s reputation in falsely stressing his preference for inferior companions.

Four-fifths of the long book covers the last twenty of Johnson’s seventy-five years, when Boswell knew him; Hawkins’ biography treats the earlier period far more fully. Boswell was in Johnson’s company a total of 425 days, including the 101 days of their Scotland travels. Yet Boswell was assiduous and indefatigable in collecting letters and reminiscences that accounted for all of Johnson’s years. Boswell’s revolutionary approach to his protagonist was to describe him precisely as he was, warts and hairs on warts, at close range, under a strong light of observation, largely in his own words and on his own terms. He recounts individual episodes to reveal the Great Man in conversation or correspondence with such eminent persons as Sir Joshua Reynolds, Edmund Burke, and Lord Chesterfield, or with the members of his own literary club (including Oliver Goldsmith, Edmund Malone, and Edward Gibbon). The deeply affectionate bond between biographer and subject helps to unify what is sometimes a static, dull, and surely overlong work.

Most impressive is Boswell’s genius for dramatizing Johnson’s characteristic words, gestures, and tonalities, his theatrical forte in organizing many-voiced and rounded scenes, with Boswell often acting as contriver of the episode and director of the plot as well as cast member and audience. Perhaps the most vivid production of this type was the dinner party orchestrated by Boswell to bring together Johnson and a radical, controversial politician whose views he hotly condemned, John Wilkes. Boswell traps Johnson into attending the gathering by suggesting that he reject the invitation, since the abominated Wilkes might also be present; always contradictory, Johnson insists on attending the dinner. Wilkes sat next to Johnson at the table and charmed him by suggesting the choicest cuts of the served veal. Johnson reluctantly softened: “’Sir, Sir, I am obliged to you, Sir,’ cried Johnson, bowing, and turning his head to him with a look for some time of ’surly virtue,’ but, in a short while, of complacency”; the two men proceeded to exchange anecdotes, to discuss Horace, and to tease Boswell, busy jotting down his notes.

By 1784, Johnson’s consistently poor health had deteriorated markedly. The two friends bade each other farewell on July 1, and Johnson, after having left Boswell’s carriage, “sprung away with a kind of pathetic briskness . . . which seemed to indicate a struggle to conceal uneasiness, and impressed me with a foreboding of our long, long separation.” Five and a half months later, Johnson died.

The final ten years of Boswell’s life were mostly dismal. In 1788, he moved from Scotland to London, was admitted to the English bar, but never practiced in the city. His wife’s death in 1789 left him with five children, the oldest of whom was then sixteen. He divided his time between them, his diverse dissipations, and work on his life of Johnson. After its 1791 publication, he became increasingly morose and alcoholic, dying when not yet fifty-five.


Until the 1920’s, a number of critics maintained that James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL. D. was an accidentally great work, that Boswell was no more than a fortunate or inspired idiot who had the opportunity of listening to and the energy to record the many wise sayings of the world’s greatest social talker. Yet the discovery during the past two generations of a mountain of Boswell’s personal papers has caused a drastic elevation of critical evaluation.

While most of Boswell’s papers remained in the archives of his estate at Auchinleck, about a third became mixed up with the documents of one of his executors, Sir William Forbes. In 1905, Auchinleck was inherited by Lord Talbot de Malahide, who moved the Archives to Malahide Castle, outside Dublin. A wealthy American collector, Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Isham, bought what was then thought to be all the Boswell papers from Lord Talbot in 1927. Further batches of Boswell’s manuscripts, letters, and notes were found at Malahide, however, in 1930, 1939, and 1949; Isham also bought these. Meanwhile, the Forbes collection of Boswelliana had been accidentally discovered, and Isham acquired also these papers in the 1930’s and 1940’s.

All these documents have provided overwhelming evidence that James Boswell is a magnificent writer of major status: not only the English-speaking world’s greatest biographer but also its most revealing autobiographer—a complex person capable of astounding self-understanding and singular honesty, a writer with a uniquely expert dramatic sense, comparable to Rousseau in his need to confess the truth combined with his talent to convey it.

In 1949-1950 Isham sold all of his Boswell accumulations to Yale University. From 1950 on, Yale has published, through the McGraw-Hill Book Company, a series of volumes containing the more interesting papers, beginning with Boswell’s London Journal, 1762-1763. Yale is itself publishing a research edition for specializing scholars, containing appropriate annotations.


Bate, W. Jackson. Samuel Johnson. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977. A brilliantly executed narrative of Johnson’s life, character, and work which interprets Boswell’s connections with the great man incisively and persuasively.

Boswell, James. Boswell’s Life of Johnson. Edited by R. W. Chapman. New York: Oxford University Press, 1960. The most convenient single-volume edition of the biography, including an authoritative introduction by Chauncey B. Tinker, the first of Yale University’s distinguished modern scholars of English eighteenth century literature. The index is first-rate in its thoroughness.

Boswell, James. The Heart of Boswell: Six Journals in One Volume. Edited by Mark Harris. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1981. The novelist Mark Harris has chosen fascinating highlights from the first six of Boswell’s autobiographical volumes in the Yale series, covering events from November, 1762, to September, 1774.

Brady, Frank. James Boswell: The Later Years, 1769- 1795. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1984. This is a sequel to Frederick Pottle’s biography, just as Professor Brady is a sometime collaborator with a protégé of Professor Pottle. The study is likely to be the most authoritative treatment, for many years, of the second half of Boswell’s life.

Clifford, James L., ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Boswell’s Life of Johnson. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1970. Boswell, as well as Johnson, has been fortunate in attracting the attention of first-rate scholars and critics. Clifford, himself a distinguished Johnsonian, has collected a judiciously chosen score of essays which students will find illuminating.

McAdam, E. L., Jr. Johnson and Boswell: A Survey of Their Writings. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1969. A scholarly critical text in the Riverside Studies in Literature series. McAdam devotes eighty pages to Boswell’s writings, assessing them probingly and lucidly.

Pottle, F. A. James Boswell: The Earlier Years, 1740- 1769. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1966. For two generations, Pottle was the world’s leading authority on Boswell. This is a standard work, to be read before Brady’s sequel. For a convenient summary of the astounding finds of Boswell papers, see Pottle’s article, “Boswell Revalued,” in his Literary Views: Critical and Historical Essays. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964.