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James Boswell

Born 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 familial heritage.

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 him to 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. - from Journals

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.

Returning 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.

Always the 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.

But 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). 

Boswell 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, flamboyant style common in his day.

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