Boswell, James

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Boswell, James (1740- 1795): Scottish Writer.

James Boswell first made himself known as a writer through political essays and travel accounts, but he gained lasting literary fame as the biographer of Dr. Johnson, Samuel. Boswell was born into a wealthy family in Edinburgh, Scotland. His father, a judge who served in Scotland’s highest courts, had his son privately tutored and sent him to an exclusive academy during his early years, an education that reinforced the boy’s shy and retiring character. Young Boswell entered the University of Edinburgh in 1753, where he began his law studies. He was not an outstanding student, but University life allowed Boswell to expand his social horizons.

Boswell did not seriously consider a literary life until his later years at Edinburgh, in which he began scribbling a few verses and letters for publication in the The Scots Magazine. In 1761, after a year of living a rather rakish life in London, he published an Ode to Tragedy; a year later, he published several pieces of comic verse in a collection entitled, Poems by Scotch Gentlemen. While his verse remains of little significance, his early journal writing reveals the attention to detail and evocative expression that make his later The Journal of a Tour to Corsica (1768) and Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (1785) literature of a better sort.

As part of his Account to Corsica, The Journal of a Tour to Corsica was aimed at securing Great Britain’s protection of a free Corsica. And while the Account did evoke powerful emotions over the issue of Corsican liberty, Boswell made his literary name with The Journal. Samuel Johnson, along with Gray, Thomas and Walpole, Horace, praised Boswell for his ability vividly to deliver his personal impressions in The Journal while exciting and gratify the curiosity of his readers. Boswell likewise captured his readers in his other highly popular Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, which detailed both his trek through the Scottish Highlands and the character of his famous traveling companion: Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Boswell attended much more closely to Johnson in The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (1791), the work he aptly referred to as his magnum opus. Boswell captures the personality of Johnson in all its expressions in The Life, as he records the Doctor’s social and intellectual habits, his responses to contemporary events, his ever-playful wit and humor, and the many conversations he had with other notable persons in his circle of friends, such as Reynolds, Sir Joshua, Burke, Edmund, and Goldsmith, Oliver. Packed with facts and images gleaned from Johnson’s daily life, Boswell’s biography uncovers the mind and manners of Johnson, as it provides an intimate view into literary London at the end of the eighteenth century.

Further Reading:

Frederick A. Pottle, James Boswell: The Early Years, 1740-1769, 1966.

Frank Brady, James Boswell: The Later Years, 1769-1795, 1984.

Jason Horn

Gordon College