Authors: James Boswell

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Scottish biographer

Author Works


The Essence of the Douglas Cause, 1767

An Account of Corsica: The Journal of a Tour to That Island, and Memoirs of Pascal Paoli, 1768

The Hypochondriack, 1777-1783 (serial), 1928 (book)

A Letter to the People of Scotland on the Present State of the Nation, 1783

The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D., 1785

The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D., 1791 (biography)

Boswell’s London Journal, 1762-1763, 1950

Boswell in Holland, 1763-1764, 1952

Boswell on the Grand Tour: Germany and Switzerland, 1764, 1953

Boswell on the Grand Tour: Italy, Corsica, and France, 1765-1766, 1955

Boswell in Search of a Wife, 1766-1769, 1956

Long Fiction:

Dorando: A Spanish Tale, 1767


James Boswell, born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on October 29, 1740, was the oldest son and heir of a distinguished Scottish judge, the proprietor of an ancient estate in Ayrshire who, when raised to the bench, took the title of Lord Auchinleck. Young Boswell was privately tutored as a child. Following his studies at the Edinburgh high school, he entered the University of Edinburgh. He also studied at the University of Glasgow and later at the University of Utrecht, in preparation for a career in law.{$I[AN]9810000689}{$I[A]Boswell, James}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Boswell, James}{$I[geo]SCOTLAND;Boswell, James}{$I[tim]1740;Boswell, James}

James Boswell

(Library of Congress)

As early as 1758, Boswell began keeping a journal and publishing articles in various periodicals. In 1759-1760, he became interested in Roman Catholicism and voiced his determination to become a priest. When Lord Auchinleck, a dour and ardent Scottish Presbyterian, opposed the idea, father and son compromised on the plan of a military career for the young man. Although he did not enter the army when his father took him to London, Boswell remained in the English city, enjoying its society and becoming a friend of many of the great and near-great of that time. On his return to Edinburgh in the following spring of 1761, he entered the university, but he much preferred the social life of the capital, becoming acquainted with young actors, young military officers, and even such a solid man of learning as David Hume. On the pretext of trying for a commission in the guards, Boswell returned to London in 1762; there he met Samuel Johnson, the famous lexicographer, critic, and conversationalist, in 1763. Also in 1763, Boswell crossed the channel to the Continent, partly to study at the University of Utrecht and partly to satisfy his appetite for famous people, good times, and new sights. During his stay on the Continent, Boswell contrived to visit both Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In 1764, he journeyed to Corsica, which, under the famous patriot Pasquale Paoli, was then fighting for independence from Genoa. The energetic Boswell became an enthusiast for the Corsican cause, and in 1768 he published An Account of Corsica: The Journal of a Tour to That Island, and Memoirs of Pascal Paoli in an effort to secure help for the Corsican patriots. Upon his return to England, Boswell tried to enlist the aid of such men as Lord Chatham and Lord Holland in getting British aid to the Corsicans, but he was unsuccessful in his attempts.

In 1766, Boswell was admitted to the bar in Scotland, and he practiced law in 1766 and 1767. His work on the Douglas case, involving the inheritance of a large estate in Scotland, sparked his interest, and he twice wrote about it: Dorando: A Spanish Tale discussed the case under the thin disguise of fiction, and The Essence of the Douglas Cause was an ambitious treatise on the subject. During these years, Boswell, always enthusiastic for women, fell in and out of love many times. Finally, he married Margaret Montgomerie, a distant cousin, in November, 1769. Boswell’s father, a widower, remarried the same day. The younger Boswell had seven children, of whom five survived to maturity.

Although Boswell’s chief claim to fame has been his friendship with Samuel Johnson and the biography which grew from it, for many months after his marriage Boswell did not see or correspond with Johnson. The two men did not meet again after the marriage until 1772, when Boswell journeyed to London. Neither Boswell’s father nor his wife liked Johnson, and Margaret Boswell did not share her husband’s enthusiasm for travel. During the vacations of the Scottish courts, in the spring of the year, Boswell went to London almost every year between 1772 and 1784. In 1773, Johnson and Boswell made their famous tour of Scotland and the Hebrides, which Boswell recorded in The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D. In the same year, Boswell was elected to Johnson’s famous Literary Club, although some of the members were not enthusiastic about adding his name to the list; the club included men of considerable fame. During the 1770’s, Boswell had both financial and domestic problems. His law practice was a slim one, and he could not learn to overlook other women. In addition, his relations with his father were strained, as they had been for years. Despite an allowance from his father, Boswell often barely skirted the abyss of bankruptcy and debtors’ prison, and a love of strong drink tended to push him to the verge of alcoholism all of his life.

Troubled as he was, Boswell continued to write. A series of seventy-odd papers was published in the London Magazine under the title The Hypochondriack. In a better financial condition after his father’s death in 1782, Boswell nourished political ambitions and attacked Fox’s India Bill in a pamphlet, A Letter to the People of Scotland on the Present State of the Nation, by which he hoped to gain political support from Lord Lowther; the attempt was unsuccessful. On June 30, 1784, Boswell, visiting in London, saw Samuel Johnson for the last time, for Johnson died the following December. In the years immediately after, Boswell tried to break into politics, but his attempts were unsuccessful. His only government appointment was that of recorder of Carlisle. He was admitted to the English bar, but the number of cases he handled was negligible. In 1783, while Boswell was in London, his wife died. Following her death, he sent his children off to various schools while he remained in London, working on his biography of Johnson and occasionally doing a little legal work. On its appearance in 1791, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D., called the Life of Johnson, was an immediate success, and two months after its appearance Boswell was elected secretary of foreign correspondence of the Royal Society. Readers found in Boswell’s Life of Johnson something new and wonderful in biographical writing. Boswell did not merely describe a wealth of detail; he made his subject come alive for the reader by means of his sharp, retentive memory, his inveterate habit of making notes on any and all events and conversations, and his near-complete candor in presenting character and scene. The result is at all times dramatically effective and psychologically revealing. Yet even the success of his book did not cheer Boswell a great deal. His last years were marked by melancholy and loneliness which he tried to ease with drink and dissipation. He fell ill in the spring of 1795 and died a few weeks later, on May 19, 1795, at his home in London.

Early in the twentieth century, a great mass of Boswell papers, including many of his journals and the complete manuscript of his Life of Johnson, was discovered at Malahide Castle in Ireland. After considerable legal entanglements were cleared away, scholars began to work on them, and many volumes of the Yale Editions of the Private Papers of James Boswell were published under the editorship of Frederick A. Pottle and Frank Brady.

BibliographyBate, W. Jackson. Samuel Johnson. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977. A brilliantly executed narrative of Johnson’s life, character, and work which interprets Boswell’s connections with the great man incisively and persuasively.Boswell, James. Boswell’s Life of Johnson. Edited by R. W. Chapman. New York: Oxford University Press, 1960. The most convenient single-volume edition of the biography, including an authoritative introduction by Chauncey B. Tinker, the first of Yale University’s distinguished modern scholars of English eighteenth century literature. The index is first-rate in its thoroughness.Boswell, James. The Heart of Boswell: Six Journals in One Volume. Edited by Mark Harris. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1981. The novelist Mark Harris has chosen fascinating highlights from the first six of Boswell’s autobiographical volumes in the Yale series, covering events from November, 1762, to September, 1774.Brady, Frank. James Boswell, the Later Years: 1769-1795. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1984. Brady’s coverage of Boswell’s journal is annotated, indexed, thoroughly researched, and enthusiastically written. Examines Boswell’s moral and psychological character, with fascinating accounts of his morbid curiosity.Bronson, Bertrand H. “Samuel Johnson and James Boswell.” In Facets of the Enlightenment. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968. A negative review of Boswell’s literary artistry, arguing against his dramatic abilities. Implies that Boswell’s perspective was narrow, his style mechanical, and his great success accidental.Clingham, Greg, ed. New Light on Boswell: Critical and Historical Essays on the Occasion of the Bicentenary of “The Life of Johnson.” Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1991. A collection of essays that explore Boswell’s literary and personal achievements and limitations. Noteworthy for the investigation of the critical and theoretical questions surrounding the notion of biographical representation.Finlayson, Iain. The Moth and the Candle: A Life of James Boswell. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984. Exactingly researched, this illustrated volume draws on the letters between Boswell and his contemporaries and serves as an insightful factual counterpoint to Boswell’s journal.Ingram, Allan. Boswell’s Creative Gloom: A Study of Imagery and Melancholy in the Writings of James Boswell. London: Macmillan, 1982. Combines literary criticism and psychoanalytic interpretation, exploring the process of thought and the method of creative expression employed by Boswell in his journal.Larsen, Lyle, ed. James Boswell: As His Contemporaries Saw Him. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson, 2008. A collection of several hundred comments about Boswell gleaned from various sources, like letters, journal entries, and book reviews taken from periodicals, books, and manuscripts. The information comes together nicely to create a vivid portrait of Boswell.LaScelles, Mary. Notions and Facts: Johnson and Boswell on Their Travels. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1972. Re-creates Boswell’s attempts to capture Johnson’s response to unaccustomed circumstances. Reviews the circle of friends and contacts who arranged the tour.Pottle, Frederick A. Pride and Negligence: The History of the Boswell Papers. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982. Considered to be the most authentic account published of the loss, reacquisition, and publication of the missing Boswell papers. Informative on the factual accuracy of the London journal.Sisman, Adam. Boswell’s Presumptuous Task: The Making of the Life of Dr. Johnson. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001. A study of Boswell’s writing of the LifeTurnbull, Gordon. “Generous Attachment: The Politics of Biography in the Tour of the Hebrides.” In Dr. Samuel Johnson and James Boswell, edited by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. Examines the political risks that Boswell took in exposing Scotland to Samuel Johnson and in exposing Samuel Johnson to Scotland. A unique contribution.Wimsatt, William K., Jr. “James Boswell: The Man and the Journal.” Yale Review 49, no. 1 (September, 1959): 80-92. Discusses Boswell’s autobiographical technique, his skills as a diarist from a literary perspective, and the distinction between the author as a society man and the image he portrays of himself in the London journal.
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