on October 29, 1740, in Edinburgh, Scotland, author James Boswell was the
son of Alexander Boswell, Lord Auchinleck, who was a judge in the supreme
courts of Scotland. Boswell's mother, Euphemia Erskine, was a
descendant of a minor branch of Scottish royalty. The Boswell family had held
the estate of Auchinleck in Ayrshire for two-and-a-half centuries. Near the
new mansion stood the ruins of the Old Castle, a constant reminder of the
For much of his life, Boswell was plagued by his mother's stifling
Calvinism and his father's coldness. In one of his journals, he wrote:
"I do not recollect having had any other valuable principle impressed upon
me by my father except a strict regard for truth, which he impressed upon my
mind by a hearty beating at an early age when I lied, and then talking of
the dishonour of lying."
Boswell attended the University of Edinburgh from 1753-1753. He
studied the arts and law. He had already begun writing poetry and keeping a journal--an act
that would eventually land him in history--by the age of 18. His father wanted
settle down and run the family's ancestral estate. But young Boswell
had other ideas. In 1759, he was sent to the University of
Glasgow to separate him from the growing affections of a buxom young
actress, with whom he had formed a relationship.
In this view, I had now called several times for a
handsome actress of Covent Garden Theatre, whom I was a little acquainted
with, and whom I shall distinguish in this my journal by the name of
LOUISA. This lady had been indisposed and saw no company, but today
I was admitted. She was in a pleasing undress and looked very
pretty. She received me with great politeness. We chatted on
the common topics. We were not easy -- there was a constraint upon
us -- we did not sit right on our chairs, and we were unwilling to look at
one another. I talked to her on the advantage of having an agreeable
acquaintance, and hoped I might see her now and then. She desired me
to call in whenever I came that way, without ceremony. "And pray," said
she, "when shall I have the pleasure of your company at tea?" I
fixed Thursday, and left her, very well satisfied with my first visit.
Boswell left Glasgow for London, where he embraced Roman Catholicism,
planning on becoming a monk. He returned to Edinburgh before going to
Holland where, in 1763, he studied law. After one term, he left for a
tour of Europe, meeting French intellectuals Jean Jacques Rousseau, of
whom he wrote a biographical sketch, and Voltaire. He also met the man
who would change his life, British author
and lexicographer, Samuel Johnson.
to Scotland in 1766, Boswell was admitted to the bar. Although he
would practice law throughout his life, his true love lay in his pursuit of
a literary career. He achieved some degree of fame with his Account of Corsica (1768), based on his visit
to that island and on his acquaintance with the Corsican patriot Pasquale
Paoli. The following year, Boswell married his cousin, Margaret Montgomerie,
who would bear him two sons and three daughters.
life of the party, Boswell enchanted nearly everyone he met. Voltaire
invited him to stay at his house after talking to him for only half an hour.
David Hume asked him to stay at his bedside when he died. He
associated at great lengths with Rousseau, whose mistress liked him so much
that she had an affair with him. He was even friends with the Pope.
it was on May 16, 1763, that he had his fateful meeting with Johnson in the
back room of a bookstore. Samuel Johnson was a notoriously unfriendly
man, but Boswell had long admired him and tried hard to impress him.
The next time they met, Johnson said to Boswell, "Give me your hand. I have
taken a liking to you." Johnson was thirty years older than Boswell
and the most renowned literary scholar in England. Boswell was
undistinguished compared to Johnson's other friends, but he never tried to
compete with Johnson's intellect.
The relationship between the two was like an interview that
went on for decades. Boswell asked the elder Johnson questions and
listened to Johnson's answers. Afterwards, he went home and wrote it
all down in his journal. He asked about mundane things, such as
Johnson's childhood and his opinions, and he asked about bizarre things like
what kind of underwear he thought women should wear. Johnson said he
preferred cotton underwear to silk.
The two men eventually became great friends. They
talked about everything from philosophy and religion to trees and turnips. In 1773,
Boswell and Johnson toured Scotland, a visit Boswell described in
The Journal of a Tour of the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (1785;
complete edition from manuscript, 1936).
knew early in their relationship that he would write Johnson's biography,
but in deference to his friend, he didn't start until after Johnson's death. The work was slow
going. He watched as several other writers published books about Johnson, and
he worried that no one would care about his book when he finished it.
He had to fight with his editor to keep the bizarre details, like the things
Johnson had said to his cat. He felt that these were the details that
revealed who Johnson really was. When the book finally came out, it
was a huge best seller. No one had ever written such a personal
biography that so completely captured a life, and no one has done so since.
The Life of
Samuel Johnson, LL.D., appeared in 1791. Instead of describing his
thoughts and feelings about things, Boswell's work recorded scenes from life
as though they were fiction. He described the people he met as though
they were characters, and he recorded long stretches of dialogue. So skillful was
the work that Johnson is better remembered today for
his sayings in the biography than for his own works. The curious combination
of Boswell's own character (he was vainglorious, a heavy drinker, and a
libertine) and his genius at biography have intrigued later critics, many of
whom conclude that he is the greatest biographer in Western literature.
Fast living and lack of self-discipline eventually took their toll.
Boswell suffered poverty and ill health in his final years.
In the 20th
century, great masses of Boswell manuscripts—journals, letters,
and other papers—were discovered, most of them at Malahide Castle, Ireland. Lt. Col. Ralph H. Isham purchased the first in 1927 and sold these and later
finds to Yale University. Publication of these Yale Editions of the Private
Papers, under the editorship of Frederick A. Pottle and others, reached
many volumes. The recent findings, most particularly his voluminous
journals, have enhanced Boswell's literary reputation. Always lively and, at
times, even exciting, the journals portray Boswell's daily life in
extraordinary detail. They are written in an easy, colloquial style,
more resembling that of many 20th-century authors than the rambling,
style common in his day.
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