Boswell, James (1740–1795)

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BOSWELL, JAMES (17401795)

BOSWELL, JAMES (17401795), Scottish biographer, lawyer, and man of letters. James Boswell is most famous as the author of the Life of Samuel Johnson (1791), perhaps the most celebrated biography in the English language. He was the eldest son of Alexander Boswell, judge and laird of Auchinleck, whose title came from the family estate in Ayrshire, western Scotland. Following his father's advice, Boswell agreed to study law at the universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow, but, lacking enthusiasm, in 1762 he traveled to London seeking a commission in the Foot Guards and, much to his father's disapproval, a more active and glamorous life in the higher echelons of the British army. Boswell's year living in London is recorded in his London Journal 17621763, a text that details Boswell's daily rounds of socializing, visiting prostitutes, going to the theater, and mixing with London's literary elite, including Samuel Johnson, to whom he was introduced on 16 May 1763 at Thomas Davies' book shop, and with whom he held a lifelong correspondence and friendship. Moving to Holland in 1763 to continue his study of law at Utrecht, Boswell was rewarded for following his father's career advice with a grand tour through Germany, France, and Italy. Visiting Corsica in 1765, and befriending General Paoli, who was fighting for its independence, Boswell turned his experience of traveling to this island into a successful travel book, An Account of Corsica (1768), which established his literary reputation in London. In 1769 he married Margaret Montgomerie and, dividing his time between his Edinburgh home and Johnson's house in London, he began to collect material for an intended biography of Johnson, persuading his subject to take a tour of Scotland and the Hebrides with him in 1773, a journey he turned into a travel narrative, Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, which was published in 1785. Elected to Johnson's exclusive Literary Club in 1773, Boswell also contributed essays as "The Hypochondriak" to The London Magazine from 1777 to 1783 on subjects ranging from drinking to memory, but perhaps most famously on diary writing, which was a constant and, indeed, obsessive passion of his, causing him to write that "a man should not live more than he can record, as a farmer should not have a larger crop than he can gather in" ("On Diaries," 1783). Following the death of his father in 1782, Boswell spent more time at the family estate in Ayrshire, meeting Johnson for the last time in London in 1784.

After Johnson's death in 1784, Boswell began to work exclusively on the Life, assisted by his friend the Shakespearean scholar Edmond Malone in collecting and editing Johnson's voluminous papers and correspondence. The Life was finally published in 1791, eclipsing all other biographies of Johnson with its scope and liveliness, and silencing those who thought Boswell was not serious enough to produce a memoir of one of the period's most revered literary figures. In his final years, and despite recurring bouts of ill health, Boswell continued to practice law and to travel the country as "the Great Biographer." Boswell died in London in 1795 and his body was interred in the family vault at Auchinleck. His papers remained in the attic at the estate and were unread until rediscovered by Lord Talbot in 1905. Once uncovered, his papers were shipped to Talbot's estate in Ireland and, after many years of scholarly bidding, were finally collated by Yale University Library in 1949. Yale has since published Boswell's correspondence and journals, and the frankness of these texts reveals intimate details about his own eventful life and documents fascinating details about literary society in eighteenth-century Britain.

See also Biography and Autobiography ; Diaries ; Edinburgh ; English Literature and Language ; Johnson, Samuel ; Scotland ; Travel and Travel Literature.


Primary Sources

Boswell, James. The Journal of a Tour to Corsica and Memoirs of Pascal Paoli. Edited by S. C. Roberts. Cambridge, U.K., 1923. Reprint 1966.

. Life of Samuel Johnson: Together with Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides and Johnson's Diary of a Journey into North Wales. Edited by George Birkbeck Hill. 6 vols. Rev. enl. ed. Oxford, 19341964.

. Samuel Johnson and James Boswell: A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland and The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides. Edited by Peter Levi. London, 1984.

. The Yale Edition of Boswell's Correspondence and Journals. Edited by Frederick A. Pottle et al. 15 vols. London, 19501993.

Secondary Sources

Brown, Anthony E. Boswellian Studies: A Bibliography. 3rd rev. ed. Edinburgh, 1991.

Hyde, Mary. The Impossible Friendship: Boswell and Mrs. Thrale. Cambridge, Mass., and London, 1972.

Pottle, Frederick A. Pride and Negligence: The History of the Boswell Papers. London, 1982.

Rogers, Pat. Johnson and Boswell: The Transit of Caledonia. Oxford and New York, 1995.

Sisman, Adam. Boswell's Presumptuous Task: Writing the Life of Dr. Johnson. London and New York, 2000.

Alison Stenton

James Boswell

views updated Jun 11 2018

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.

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.

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.

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.

Further Reading

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).

Additional 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. □

Boswell, James

views updated May 23 2018


Scottish man of letters, convert to Roman Catholicism; b. Edinburgh, Oct. 29, 1740; d. London, May 19, 1795. Boswell was the eldest son of Lord Auchinleck, of an old and staunchly Presbyterian family. Though he studied law and was admitted to the bar, he was always more attracted to literature. He visited Corsica in 1766 and first distinguished himself as a writer with his Account of Corsica (1768) and Essays in Favour of the Brave Corsicans (1769). Hero-worship stimulated his best writing and was the inspiration for his famous Life of Samuel Johnson (1791). As Johnson's guide he made the tour through Scotland that provided material for Tour to the Hebrides (1785). His copious journals, unpublished during his life, were discovered 135 years after his death.

Boswell was an eccentric and remarkable character, often vehemently attacked for his sycophancy, his conceit, and his immorality. His severest critics, however, are constrained to praise the charm and lucidity of his style and his gift for capturing the personalities of his acquaintances and the flavor of their conversations. Shrewd judgment and conscientious art underlie the deceptive ease of his narration. His writing is full of humor and captures unique pictures of life in Scotland and London in the 18th century.

At the age of 17 Boswell ran away to London and was received into the Catholic Church. As a Catholic in penal times he would have been prevented from following any professional career and from succeeding to the family estates. He accordingly concealed his conversion and did not live as a Catholic, although his journals contain many references to attending Mass. He avoided any formal abjuration of his beliefs, and on occasion argued with Dr. Johnson in defense of them. He left in his will a request for prayers for his soul, but this was suppressed by his heirs, who held no belief in purgatory.

Although devoted to his wife, Boswell was frequently unfaithful to her. He constantly expresses contrition for his marital lapses and for his bouts of drunkenness; he laments his weakness of character, which plunged him into periods of terrible despondency. He writes even of his own conceit and pretentiousness with candor and humility. The affection he inspired in men of high principle and discrimination is a tribute to his capacity for loyalty and friendship.

Bibliography: j. boswell, Note Book, 17761777, ed. r. w. chapman (London 1925); Private Papers of J. Boswell from Malahide Castle, ed. g. scott and f. a. pottle, 18 v. (London 192834); Letters, ed. c. b. tinker, 2 v. (London 1924); d. b. wyndham lewis, The Hooded Hawk (London 1946). The Yale edition of the Private Papers of James Boswell, ed. f. a. pottle et al. (New York): London Journal, 17621763, ed. f. a. pottle (1950); Boswell in Holland, 17631764 (1952); Boswell on the Grand Tour 2 v. (195355); Boswell in Search of a Wife, 17661769 (1956); Boswell for the Defence, 17691774 (1960); The Ominous Years, 17741776 (1963).

[g. scott-moncrieff]

Boswell, James

views updated Jun 08 2018

Boswell, James (1740–95). Writer. Educated at Edinburgh High School and Edinburgh University, the son of Lord Auchinleck, Boswell owes his significance to the writer and poet Samuel Johnson. Their friendship enabled him to write Life of Johnson (1791) as well as Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (1785). Boswell's non-Johnsonian literary achievement was his Account of Corsica (1768). The Life is a milestone in English literature. It provides witty yet profound insights into one of Britain's finest writers and a strong flavour of 18th-cent. society. The power of Johnson's personality shines through every page. However, Boswell and Johnson met for the first time only in 1763 with the latter already in his fifties, and though they had a strong friendship, they were not as inseparable as the Life may suggest. Boswell was a vain man who found it difficult to control his emotions, being prone to depression, drink, and whoring. He was a fame hunter, obsequious to his targets (notably Corsican General Paoli, the reckless politician John Wilkes, and Johnson), but occasionally rude and haughty to those he considered ‘lesser men’. He lacked sufficient dedication to be a successful lawyer and his hopes of entering Parliament were never realized. Without Johnson, Boswell's life would have been one of high but unfulfilled aspirations.

Andrew Iain Lewer

Boswell, James

views updated Jun 11 2018

Boswell, James (1740–95) Scottish biographer and writer. As a young man, he travelled widely in Europe, meeting Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. An inveterate hero-worshipper, Boswell found his vocation as the friend and biographer of Samuel Johnson. His monumental Life of Samuel Johnson (1791) is regarded not only as his masterpiece but also one of the greatest biographies in English. Boswell's other works include An Account of Corsica (1768) and The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (1785), an account of his travels with Johnson. His often disconcertingly frank journals paint a colourful picture of contemporary life. See also biography

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