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James Boswell (1740-1795)


Scottish lawyer, essayist, known for his two-volume biography The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (1791), published seven years after the death of its subject. Boswell met Samuel Johnson in May 1763 in Davies's London bookshop and the two became fast friends. He recorded in detail Johnson's words and activities in a relatively short period. Later the historian Thomas Macaulay (1800-1859) called Boswell's worship of Dr. Johnson "Lues Boswelliana, or disease of admiration." G.B. Shaw, who had the opposite opinion, went as far as to claim that Johnson was a dramatic character created by Boswell.

"We cannot tell the precise moment when a friendship is formed. As in filling a vessel drop by drop, there is at last a drop which makes it run over; so in a series of kindness there is at last one which makes the heart run over." (from The Life of Samuel Johnson)

James Boswell was born in Edinburgh, the son of Alexander Boswell, Lord Auchinleck, who was a judge in the supreme courts of Scotland. Boswell's mother, Euphemia Erskine, was descended from a minor branch of Scottish royalty. His family had had for two-and-a-half centuries as its seat the estate of Auchinleck in Ayrshire. Near the new mansion were the ruins of the Old Castle, which he eagerly showed to Johnson and other friends.

Much of his life Boswell was plagued by his mother's suffocating Calvinism and his father's coldness. Lord Auchinleck remarried in 1769. After his death in 1782, Boswell became the Master of Auchinleck, but he never enjoyed his life there.

At the age of 16, Boswell had a nervous breakdown, and he was sent to recuperate to the border village of Moffat. For a long period he was so afraid of ghost that he could not sleep alone. In one of his journals Boswell 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." He attended the University of Edinburgh (1753-1753), where he studied arts and law. He was already keeping a journal and writing poems when he was 18. At 19 he made his first visit to London and a few years later, on his second visit, Boswell met Dr. Johnson on 16 May, 1763, at Tom Davies's book shop. Boswell described the encounter in his journal and later his journals, in which he recorded Johnson's conversations, became the principal source for his biography.

In 1759 Boswell's father send him to the University of Glasgow to separate his son from an actress. Among his tutors there was Adam Smith, the Professor of Moral Philosophy, whose advocacy of pure English style impressed him deeply. After six months Boswell ran away to London, where he embraced Roman Catholicism, planning to become a monk. During his stay he met Laurence Sterne, the writer of Tristram Shandy, and Edward, Duke of York, brother to Prince George, who become King. Deciding the his future would be in London, he returned to Edinburgh. The winter of 1763-64 he spent studying law in Utrecht, Holland, and enjoying the company of a young lady named Belle de Zuylen. After one term, Boswell left for a tour of Europe, meeting the French intellectuals Jean Jacques Rousseau, of whom he wrote a biographical sketch, and Voltaire. Rousseau, who suffered from health problems, informed Boswell that he has to use a catheter to control his bladder. While in Corsica he become friends with General Pasquale Paoli. On a journey from Paris to London, the exhausted Boswell wrote that he was seduced in coach and inn 13 times by Rousseau's mistress Thérèse Le Vasseur, before they had reched Dover. Moving back to Scotland in 1766, Boswell was admitted to the bar and practised law in Edinburgh for 20 years. Although he first attracted a fair number of clients, never earned enough to pay off loans. He had also a reputation of being the defender of the poor and the needy.

Boswell had a phenomenal memory, he loved gossip, good conversation, liquor, travel, and he was a natural writer. From 1760s onwards, he had wrote anonymously various pamphlets and verses. Moreover, throughout his life he was a passionate diarist. In 1768 Boswell published An Account of Corsica, based on his journey. The book, which was an immediate success and earned him the nickname 'Corsica Boswell,' was a defence of Corsica's abortive struggle for freedom against the republic of Genoa. Rousseau had earlier sparked Boswell's zeal for the cause of Corsican liberty. In 1769 Boswell appeared at a Shakespeare Jubilee dressed as a Corsican chief, armed with stiletto and pistols.

Boswell wanted to become known as a great lover. He told about his adventures to his friends, William Temple and John Johnston, and once claimed that he had made love five times in a single evening. He was well-known among prostitutes in London's St. James Park his sexuality was compulsive and he copulated after watching public hangings, a favorite pastime, and after personal bereavements. Over a period of 30 years he contracted gonorrhea 17 times. In a poem about himself Boswell wrote: "Boswell is pleasant and gay, / For frolic by nature designed; / He heedlessly rattles away / When company is to his mind." He was very disappointed when Catherine Blair, an heiress, rejected him and married a cousin, Sir William Maxwell. Boswell wrote to William Temple: "The heiress is a good Scots lass. But I must have an English woman. My mind is now twice as enlarged as it has been for some months. You cannot say how fine a woman I may marry, perhaps a Howard or some other of the noblest in the kingdom."

In 1769 Boswell married Margaret Montgomerie, his cousin; they had two boys and three girls. From early on, he worried of her health and that he would be left alone. Though his visits to London were restricted to the vacations of the Court of Session, Boswell kept up his contacts with Johnson, and was elected to the Literary Club in 1773. The members included some of the most famous men of the time, such as the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds, the actor David Garrick, the historian Edward Gibbon, and the political economist Adam Smith. With Johnson, who described Boswell as "the best travelling companion in the world", the friends made their celebrated tour of Scotland and the Hebrides. "A page of my Journal is like a cake of portable soup. A little may be diffused into a considerable portion." (from Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides) The route followed that of the unfortunate rebel, Prince Charles Edward. One of Johnson's motives to undertake the journey was to investigate the authenticity of Macpherson's Ossian poems; he was sure that they were fakes.

Between the years 1777 and 1783 Boswell wrote for The London Magazine a series of essays on such subjects as drinking, diaries, and hypochondria. Boswell saw Johnson for the last time on 30 June, 1784. After Johnson's death in December, Boswell began to write The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, published in 1785. It has been compared to a picaresque adventure, where Johnson is Don Quixote and Boswell has the role of Sancho Panza. Although reviews were good, it was questioned, was it right to reveal Johnson's follies and whims and private conversations. "Authenticity is my chief boast," answerd Boswell. Later this book was included in the Life of Johnson, which breaks off at the point where Tour begins and continues again where it finishes.

Boswell moved to London, and although he was admitted to the English bar, he concentrated on the writing of The Life of Samuel Johnson. The work proceeded slowly, owing partly to Boswell's drinking habit, fits of depression. and hypochondria. It took years to gather material – letters, memoirs, interviews – and sort, select, and edit it. In the editing, he was helped by the Irish scholar Edmond Malone, a fellow-member of the Literary Club, with whom he had collaborated in the Tour. Before Boswell finally published his magnum opus on 16 May, 1791, he wrote a long racist poem, No Abolition of Slavery; or, the Universal Empire of Love, in which he defended slavery. Ev'n at their labour hear them sing. / While time flies quick on downy wing: / Finish'd the bus'ness of the day, / No human beings are more gay," he wrote. Boswell thought that an abolition of the slave trade would prevent slaves from being exposed to the civilizing effects of British rule.

The Life of Johnson was a commercial success despite its high price. Reviews were favorable. "Perhaps no man was ever so perfectly painted as you you have painted your hero," said Boswell's old friend William Temple. However, Boswell's own literary skill's as a writer were not recognized in the extraordinary vivid biography, and for a long time, until the publication of Boswelliana (1874), he was labelled as a mere "stenographer."

Boswell's remaining years were mainly unhappy, and he no longer had a clear course for his life. Some of his frieds avoided him, afraid that he would record their conversation – or perhaps that he would not do it. Boswell's pursuit of a political career turned out to be unsuccessful. His wife, who coughed and spitted blood while in London, moved back to Scotland and after her death in 1789, he had difficulties with his "Edinburgh-mannered" daughters, who did much as they pleased. Boswell died in London, on May 19, 1795. His body was taken to Auchinleck and laid in the family vault.

According to a literary anecdote the first governor-general of British India, Warren Hastings (1732-1818), was asked what he thought of the Life of Samuel Johnson. "Sir," he replied, "it's the dirtiest book in my library." Hastings himself was impeached for corruption in his administration. Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson is perhaps the greatest biography in the English language. Boswell made notes on the spot during Johnson's conversation and he questioned Johnson's friends, transforming details into a lifelike portrait. In this work Boswell was aided by Edmund Malone (1741-1812), an Irish literary critic and Shakespearean scholar, who went over the final draft of Johnson's biography. By flattering, cunning questions, and demeaning himself, Boswell provoked Johnson into giving his best, making him talk. Without diminishing the stature of Johnson, Boswell is now considered not only a faithful recorder of an exceptional personality, but the creator of a masterpiece.

For further reading: Dr Johnson och James Boswell: en bok om engelskt liv och lynne by Yrjö Hirn (1922); Boswell by C.C. Abbott (1946); James Boswell by P. A.W. Collins (1956); The Impossible Friendship by M. Hyde (1973); Boswell's Creative Gloom by A. Ingham (1982); Boswell's Literary Art: An Annotated Bibliography of Critical Studies, 1900-1985 by Hamilton E. Cochrane (1992); Boswellian Studies: A Bibliography by Anthony E. Brown (1992); Catalogue of the Papers of James Boswell at Yale University: Research Edition, ed. by Marion S. Pottle, et al (1993); Johnson and Boswell in Scotland: A Journey to the Hebrides, ed. by Pat Rogers, et al (1993); Boswell: Citizen of the World, Man of Letters, ed. by Irma S. Lustig (1995); James Boswell: Psychological Interpretations. ed. by Donald J. Newman (1995); All the Sweets of Being: A Life of James Boswell by Roger Hutchinson (1996); A Life of James Boswell by Peter Martin (2000); Boswell's Presumptuous Task by Adam Sisman (2001); James Boswell: As His Contemporaries Saw Him, edited by Lyle Larsen (2008); Boswell and The Press: Essays on the Ephemeral Writing of James Boswell, edited by Donald J. Newman (2021) - Place to visit in London: Dr. Johnson House, 17 Gough Square, where Johnson lived and wrote his Dictionary. Houses memorablia and manuscripts.

Selected writings:

  • An Account of Corsica, 1768
  • British Essays in Favour of the Brave Corsicans, 1769 (Collected and published by James Boswell, Esq.)
  • The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, 1785
  • No Abolition of Slavery, or the Universal Empire of Love, a Poem, 1791
  • The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D., 1791 (2nd ed. 1793; 3rd ed. 1799; 1831, ed. by John Wilson Crocker; 1874, ed. by Percy Fitzgerald; 1887, ed. by Geroge Birkbeck Hill) - Tohtori Johnsonin elämä (suom. Jouko Linturi)
  • The Principal Corrections and Additions to the First Edition of Mr. Boswell's Life of Dr. Johnson, 1793
  • Boswelliana: The Commonplace Book of James Boswell, 1874 (ed. by Reverend Charles Rogers)
  • The Letters of James Boswell, 1924 (2 vols., ed. by Chauncey B. Tinker)
  • Private papers of James Boswell from Malahide Castle: in the collection of Lt.-Colonel Ralph Heyward Isham, 1928-34 (18 vols., ed. by Geoffrey Scott and Frederick A. Pottle)
  • Boswell's Life of Johnson, 1934-50 (standard edition, 6 vols., ed. by G.B. Hill, rev. by L.F. Powell)
  • Boswell's Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D. , 1936 ( Frererick A. Pottle and Gordon H. Bennett, ed. byrev. ed. 1963)
  • Boswell's London Journal 1762-1763, 1950 (ed. by Frederick A. Pottle) - Lontoon päiväkirja 1762-1763 (suom. Jouko Linturi)
  • Boswell in Holland 1763-64, Including His Correspondence with Belle de Zuylen (Zélide), 1952 (ed. by Frederick A. Pottle)
  • Boswell on the Grand Tour: Germany and Switzerland 1763-1764, 1953 (ed. by Frederick A. Pottle)
  • Boswell on the Grand Tour: Italy, Corsica, and France, 1765-6, 1955 (ed. by Frank Brady and Frederick A. Pottle)
  • Boswell In Search of a Wife 1766-9, 1956 (ed. by Frank Brady and Fredrick A. Pottle)
  • Boswell for the Defence, 1769-1774, 1959 (ed. by William K. Wimsatt Jr. and Frederick A. Pottle)
  • Boswell: The Ominous Years, 1774-1776, 1963 (ed. by Charles Ryskamp and Frederick A. Pottle)
  • Correspondence of James Boswell and John Johnston of Grange, 1966 (ed. by Ralph S. Walker)
  • The Yale Editions of the Private Papers of James Boswell: Research edition, 1966
  • Extremes: Boswell in Extremes, 1776-1778, 1970 (ed. by Charles McC. Weis and Frederick A. Pottle)
  • The Correspondence and Other Papers of James Boswell Relating to the Making of the Life of Johnson, 1970 (ed. by Marshall Waingrow)
  • The Correspondence of James Boswell with Certain Members of The Club, 1976 (ed. by Claude N. Fifer)
  • Boswell, Laird of Auchinleck, 1778-82, 1977 (ed. by Joseph W. Reed and Fredrick A. Pottle)
  • Boswell: The Applause of the Jury,1782-1785, 1981 (ed. by Irma S. Lustig and Frederick A. Pottle)
  • Boswell: "The English Experiment, 1785-9", 1986 (ed. by Irma S. Lustig and Frederick A. Pottle)
  • The Correspondence of James Boswell with David Garrick, Edmund Burke, and Edmond Malone, 1987 (ed. by Peter S. Baker et al.)
  • Boswell: The Great Biographer,1789-95, 1989 (ed. by Marlies K. Danzinger and Frank Brady)
  • The General Correspondence of James Boswell: 1766-1769, 1768-1769, 1993 (ed. by Richard C. Cole)
  • The Correspondence of James Boswell and William Johnson Temple, 1756-1795: 1756-1777, 1997 (Boswell's Correspondence, vol. 6, ed. by Thomas Crawford)
  • The Correspondence of James Boswell with James Bruce and Andrew Gibb, Overseers of the Auchinleck Estate, 1999 (Boswell Correspondence, vol. 8)
  • Facts and Inventions: Selections from the Journalism of James Boswell, 2014 (edited by Paul Tankard; with the assistance of Lisa Marr)
  • The Correspondence of James Boswell and Sir William Forbes of Pitsligo, 2022

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