James Boswell

The Scottish biographer and diarist James Boswell (1740-1795), who wrote The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D., published in 1791, ranks as the greatest biographer in the history of Western literature. His private papers also reveal "Bozzie" as a most distinguished diarist.

James Boswell was born in Edinburgh on Oct. 29, 1740. He was the eldest of the three sons of the advocate Alexander Boswell, Lord of Auchinleck in Ayrshire from 1749, and Euphemia Erskine Boswell. The Boswells were an old and well-connected family, having held the barony of Auchinleck since 1504 and having intermarried with the nobility.

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Early Life

As a child, Boswell was delicate and suffered from some type of nervous ailment. At 13 he enrolled in the arts course at the University of Edinburgh, studying there from 1753 to 1758. Midway in his studies he suffered a serious depression and nervous illness, but when he recovered he had thrown off all signs of delicacy and attained robust health. Boswell had swarthy skin, black hair, and dark eyes; he was of average height, and he tended to plumpness. His appearance was alert and masculine, and he had an ingratiating sense of good humor.

In 1759 Boswell matriculated at the University of Glasgow, continuing to prepare himself for a legal career. In 1760 he ran away to London, where the Earl of Eglinton introduced him to his circle of friends, including Laurence Sterne. Dazzled by metropolitan culture and by women, whom Boswell now discovered were attracted to him and he to them, Boswell determined to remain permanently in the capital by obtaining a commission in the Foot Guards.

Lord Auchinleck fetched Boswell home in June 1760, thereby beginning a 3-year struggle with his son, who by now was in open rebellion. Boswell studied law at home until he passed his trials in civil law in July 1762, spending part of his free time scribbling verse that showed little merit. Still stubborn in his London plans, he worked out a compromise with his father whereby the elder Boswell agreed to supplement his annuity and to permit him to seek a guards commission in London.

Boswell, in anticipation of this trip, began in the fall of 1762 his journal. He wrote everything down, imaginatively reconstructing events. His generousness of mind enabled him to elicit memorable conversation from those he met, and he dramatically reported it in his journal.

Boswell's second London visit lasted from November 1762 to August 1763. During this period he met both Oliver Goldsmith and John Wilkes, and on May 16, 1793, he received an unexpected introduction to Samuel Johnson, whose works he greatly admired, in a bookseller's back parlor. Boswell called on Johnson a week later, and their friendship was cemented. Soon Boswell, convinced he could not obtain a guards commission, gave in to his father's desire for him to become a lawyer. He agreed to spend the winter studying civil law at Utrecht, Holland.

Johnson made a 4-day journey to Harwich to see Boswell off to Holland. After a year of study in Utrecht, whose sole redeeming feature was his courtship of Belle de Zuylen (Zélide), Boswell embarked on a grand tour (1764-1766). In Switzerland he obtained interviews with both Jean Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire. Boswell spent 9 months sight-seeing in Italy, and in the autumn of 1765 made a 6 weeks' tour of Corsica in order to interview Pasquale Paoli, the Corsican leader who was attempting to secure the island's freedom from Genoa. Boswell and Paoli became lifelong friends, and Boswell's Corsican visit later provided the basis for his first important publication.

Career and Marriage

Boswell received admission to the faculty of advocates of the Scottish bar on July 26, 1766. For the next 17 years he successfully practiced law in Edinburgh, making as he said a better lawyer than could have been expected from one "pressed into service." Until 1784 his cherished trips to London were made only during vacations and not, to his regret, annually. In 1768 Boswell published An Account of Corsica, the Journal of a Tour to That Island, and Memoirs of Pascal Paoli, the first of his works to be based on his journal.

Between the time of his arrival in Edinburgh to practice law and 1769, Boswell amused himself—meantime maintaining a liaison with a divorcee, by whom he had a child— by pursuing not too earnestly a series of Scottish, English, and Irish heiresses. Eventually, on Nov. 25, 1769, he married an impoverished first cousin, Margaret Montgomerie. Boswell and his wife ultimately had five children.

During the first years of his marriage, Boswell was happy, hardworking, and chaste. In August-November 1773 he made his famous tour of the Hebrides with Dr. Johnson. That year Boswell was also elected to membership in The Club. By 1776, however, Boswell had begun to have intimations of failure—he had failed a government position, his practice had not become more notable, and he had returned to heavy drinking and to whoring.

Between 1777 and 1783 Boswell contributed a series of 70 essays to the London Magazine under the title of "The Hypochondriack." His succession to Auchinleck in 1782, following his father's death, made Boswell an important man in Ayrshire and encouraged him to concentrate upon a political career. Unsuccessful in his application to several ministries, he finally pinned his hopes on William Pitt the Younger and Henry Dundas, the political manager of Scotland. His well-received pamphlet attacking Charles James Fox's East India Bill, A Letter to the People of Scotland, issued in 1783, did not gain him political preferment, however, and so in a second pamphlet, with the same title, published in 1785, Boswell turned against Dundas. By alienating him, Boswell blocked any hope of a political career in Scotland.

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Life of Johnson

Samuel Johnson died on Dec. 13, 1784, and Boswell decided to devote sufficient time toward writing an adequate biography. He also decided to publish his journal of their Hebridean tour as its first installment. Accordingly, he went to London in the spring of 1785 to see his Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides through the press. This revised version of his original journal, coming from the happiest period of Boswell's life and recording 101 days spent with Johnson, probably excels all the other parts of Boswell's journal. The book achieved a great success, but it also provoked the charge of personal fatuity that has attached to Boswell's name since. Critics then as well as now could not understand how Boswell could record his own vanities and weaknesses with the objectivity of an historian.

Disliking the narrow provincialism of Scotland more and more, Boswell determined to transfer to the English bar. He was called to the Inner Temple on Feb. 9, 1786, and moved his family to London (late 1788). Thereafter he had almost no legal practice, and his principal activity became the writing of his Life of Johnson. His wife's death on June 4, 1789, came as a severe blow. His failure as a lawyer and as a political aspirant; his quarrel with the Earl of Lonsdale, which forced him to resign the recordership of Carlisle in 1790; his straitened financial circumstances; and his encumbrance with debts caused by the maintenance and education of his five children—all these furnished a somber backdrop to his labors of writing, revising, and completing the greatest of all biographies.

The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D was published on May 16, 1791, in a two-volume quarto edition of about 1, 750 copies to immediate success and to critical acclaim for the work and derision for its author. Boswell enjoyed his fame, but he still wished for "creditable employment." His last years were prevailingly unhappy, and he became a heavy drinker. Boswell saw the second edition of his Life through the press in July 1793 and was overseeing the third edition when he died in London after a sudden illness on May 19, 1795.

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His Personality

Boswell appeared to his contemporaries as an intelligent, cultured, and congenial man, distinguished by the generosity of his spirit. Pride in his family and a desire for advancement were his ruling passions, but of almost equal importance were his social adaptability, good nature, passion for publicity, and compulsion to record all his activities. Boswell's frankness about his habits has led to an exaggerated emphasis on his instability of character, particularly on his drinking and whoring. The Calvinist instruction he had received as a child in the "last things" and the painfully vivid images of hell fixed in his mind when he was 12 years old warred all his life with his natural impulses and produced recurrent attacks of guilt and depression.

Literary Technique

Boswell was a writer of genius, particularly in his finest type of writing—the record of what he had observed. His three main works-the "Journal" section of his Account of Corsica, the Tour to the Hebrides, and the Life of Johnson— were all based on notes or journals written shortly after the events they describe. Long practice, however, enabled Boswell years later to take condensed notes and to expand them into a detailed scene.

The main characteristics of Boswell's works are accuracy, a sense of the dramatic, and an eye for significant details. In his Life Boswell skillfully dramatized many scenes, building up his effects gradually. The structure of the biography, although ostensibly that of year-by-year arrangement, actually achieves unity through its recurrent topics— religion, government, and death—and through the adept playing off of subordinate figures—Edmund Burke, Oliver Goldsmith, and Boswell himself—against Johnson. This latter technique projects Johnson into the spotlight as though he were the main character in a novel, one made up of a series of interconnected dramas in which Boswell has arranged all figures for maximum effect.

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Further Reading on James Boswell

The standard scholarly edition of the Life of Johnson is that edited by George Birbeck Hill and revised and enlarged by L. F. Powell, volume 5 of which contains the standard scholarly edition of Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (6 vols., 1934-1964). Boswell's private papers, rediscovered in the 1920s, were edited by Geoffrey Scott and Frederick A. Pottle, Private Papers of James Boswell from Malahide Castle (18 vols., 1928-1934; index, 1937).

The definitive biography, covering Boswell's early career, is Frederick A. Pottle, James Boswell: The Earlier Years, 1740-1795 (1966), which supersedes W. Keith Leask, Boswell (1897). Other biographical sources include Chauncey Brewster Tinker, Young Boswell (1922), and Dominic Bevan Wyndham Lewis, The Hooded Hawk: or, The Case of Mr. Boswell (1946; republished as The Hooded Hawk: James Boswell 1952). The Yale Editions of the Private Papers of James Boswell, edited by Frederick A. Pottle and others, will constitute a virtual autobiography. To date, eight volumes in this series have been issued: Boswell's London Journal, 1762-1763, edited by Pottle (1951); Boswell in Holland, 1763-1764 edited by Pottle (1952); Boswell on the Grand Tour: Germany and Switzerland, 1764, edited by Pottle (1953); Boswell on the Grand Tour: Italy, Corsica, and France, 1765-1766, edited by Frank Brady and Pottle (1955); Boswell in Search of a Wife, 1766-1769, edited by Brady and Pottle (1956); Boswell for the Defence, 1769-1774, edited by William K. Wimsatt, Jr., and Pottle (1962); Boswell's Journal of a Tour of the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson edited by Pottle (1962); and Boswell: The Ominous Years, edited by Charles Ryskamp and Pottle (1963).

Frederick A. Pottle, The Literary Career of James Boswell, Esq. (1929), remains the standard bibliographical work.

Critical studies of note include Geoffrey Scott, The Making of the Life of Johnson, volume 6 of Private Papers of James Boswell from Malahide Castle, already mentioned; Bertrand H. Bronson, "Boswell's Boswell, " in Johnson and Boswell: Three Essays (1945); F. A. Pottle, "The Power of Memory in Boswell and Scott, " in Essays on the Eighteenth Century: Presented to David Nichol Smith (1945); Frederick A. Pottle, "James Boswell, Journalist, " in The Age of Johnson: Essays Presented to Chauncey Brewster Tinker (1949); Moray McLaren, The Highland Jaunt: A Study of James Boswell and Samuel Johnson upon Their Highland and Hebridean Tour of 1773 (1955); Frank Brady, Boswell's Political Career (1965); and Johnson, Boswell, and Their Circle: Essays Presented to Lawrence Fitzroy Powell (1965).

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Additional Biography Sources

Finlayson, Iain, The moth and the candle: a life of James Boswell, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1984.

Brady, Frank, James Boswell, the later years, 1769-1795, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1984.

Pottle, Frederick Albert, James Boswell, the earlier years, 1740-1769, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1985.

Daiches, David, James Boswell and his world, New York: Scribner, 1976.

Boswell, James, Boswell, Laird of Auchinleck, 1778-1782, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1977.