James Boswell

James Boswell

Infobox Writer
name = James Boswell

caption =
birthdate = birth date|1740|10|29|mf=y
birthplace = Edinburgh, Scotland
deathdate = death date and age|1795|5|19|1740|10|29|mf=y
deathplace = London, England
occupation = Lawyer, Diarist, Author

James Boswell, 9th Laird of Auchinleck (October 29, 1740 - May 19, 1795) was a lawyer, diarist, and author born in Edinburgh, Scotland. He was the eldest son of a judge, Alexander Boswell, 8th Laird of Auchinleck and his wife Euphemia Erskine, Lady Auchinleck. Boswell's mother was a strict Calvinist, and he felt that his father was cold to him. Boswell, who is best known as Samuel Johnson’s biographer, inherited his father’s estate Auchinleck in Ayrshire. His name has passed into the English language as a term ("Boswell", "Boswellian", "Boswellism") for a constant companion and observer.

Boswell is also known for the detailed and frank journals that he wrote for long periods of his life, which remained undiscovered until the 1920s. These included voluminous notes on the grand tour of Europe that he took as a young nobleman and, subsequently, of his tour of Scotland with Johnson. His journals also record meetings and conversations with eminent individuals belonging to The Club, including Lord Monboddo, David Garrick, Edmund Burke, Joshua Reynolds and Oliver Goldsmith. His written works focus chiefly on others, but he was admitted as a good companion and accomplished conversationalist in his own right.

Early life

Boswell was born near St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh on 29 October, 1740. As a child, he was delicate and suffered from some type of nervous ailment. He was educated at James Mundell's academy, followed by a string of private tutors before being enrolled at 13 into 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 humour.

Upon turning nineteen he was sent to continue his studies at the University of Glasgow, where he was taught by Adam Smith. While at Glasgow, Boswell decided to convert to Catholicism and become a monk. Upon learning of this, Boswell's father ordered him home. Instead of obeying, Boswell ran away to London.

Boswell spent three months in London, where he lived the life of a libertine before he was taken back to Scotland by his father. Upon returning, he was re-enrolled at Edinburgh University and was forced by his father to sign away most of his inheritance in return for an allowance of £100 a year. On July 30, 1762, Boswell took his oral law exam, which he passed with some skill. Upon this success, Lord Auchinleck decided to raise his son's allowance to £200 a year and allowed him to return to London. It was during this spell in London that Boswell wrote his "London Journal" and met Johnson for the first time, on May 16, 1763; the pair became friends almost immediately. Boswell was eventually nicknamed "Bozzy" by Johnson.

The first conversation between Johnson and Boswell is quoted in "The Life of Samuel Johnson" as follows:: [Boswell:] "Mr. Johnson, I do indeed come from Scotland, but I cannot help it.": [Johnson:] "That, Sir, I find, is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help." [James Boswell "The Life of Samuel Johnson", [1992] Everyman ed, p247] It is widely believed that Johnson despised the Scots; however, on being specifically asked the question, he also admitted that this prejudice was without basis.

European travels

It was around three months after this first encounter with Johnson that Boswell departed for Europe with the initial goal of continuing his law studies at Utrecht University. He spent a year there and although desperately unhappy the first few months, he quite enjoyed his time in Utrecht. He befriended and fell in love with Belle van Zuilen, a Dutch intellect and his superior. Boswell admired the young widow Geelvinck who refused to marry him. After this, Boswell spent most of the next two years travelling around the continent. During this time he met Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau and made a pilgrimage to Rome. Boswell also travelled to Corsica to meet one of his heroes, the independence leader Pasquale Paoli. His well observed diaries of this time have been compiled into two books "Boswell in Holland" and "Boswell and the Grand Tour"

Mature life

Boswell returned to London in February 1766 accompanied by Rousseau's mistress, with whom he may have had a brief affair on the journey home. After spending a few weeks in the capital, he returned to Scotland to take his final law exam. He passed the exam and became an advocate. He practiced for over a decade, during which time he spent no more than a month every year with Johnson. Nevertheless, he returned to London each year in order to mingle with Johnson and the rest of the London literary crowd, and to escape his mundane existence in Scotland. He found enjoyment in playing the intellectual rhyming game crambo with his peers.

Boswell married his cousin, Margaret Montgomerie, in November 1769. She remained faithful to Boswell, despite his frequent liaisons with prostitutes, until her death of tuberculosis in 1789. After his infidelities he would deliver tearful apologies to her and beg her forgiveness, before again promising her, and himself, that he would reform. James and Margaret had four sons and three daughters. Two sons died in infancy; the other two were Alexander (1775-1822) and James (1778-1822). Their daughters were Veronica (1773-1795), Euphemia (1774-ca. 1834) and Elizabeth (1780-1814). Boswell also had at least two illegitimate children, Charles (1762-1764) and Sally (1767-1768?).

Despite his relative literary success with accounts of his European travels, Boswell was an unsuccessful advocate. By the late 1770s he descended further and further into alcoholism and gambling addiction. Throughout his life, from childhood until death, he was beset by severe swings of mood. His depressions frequently encouraged, and were exacerbated by, his various vices. His happier periods usually saw him relatively vice-free. His character mixed a superficial Enlightenment sensibility for reason and taste with a genuine and somewhat Romantic love of the sublime and a propensity for occasionally puerile whimsy. The latter, along with his tendency for drink and other vices, caused many contemporaries and later observers to regard him as being too lightweight to be an equal in the literary crowd that he wanted to be a part of. However, his humour and innocent good nature won him many lifelong friends.

Boswell was a frequent guest of Lord Monboddo at Monboddo House, a setting where he gathered significant observations for his writings by association with Samuel Johnson, Robert Burns, Lord Kames, Lord Monboddo and other luminaries.

After Johnson's death in 1784, Boswell moved to London to try his luck at the English Bar, which proved even more unsuccessful than his career in Scotland. He also offered to stand for Parliament but failed to get the necessary support, and he spent the final years of his life writing his "Life of Johnson". During this time his health began to fail due to venereal disease and his years of drinking. Boswell died in London in 1795.

Boswell's "Life of Samuel Johnson"

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poly 133 343 124 287 159 224 189 228 195 291 222 311 209 343 209 354 243 362 292 466 250 463 Dr Johnson - Dictionary writerpoly 76 224 84 255 43 302 62 400 123 423 121 361 137 344 122 290 111 234 96 225 Boswell - Biographerpoly 190 276 208 240 229 228 247 238 250 258 286 319 282 323 223 323 220 301 200 295 Sir Joshua Reynolds - Hostpoly 308 317 311 270 328 261 316 246 320 228 343 227 357 240 377 274 366 284 352 311 319 324 David Garrick - actorpoly 252 406 313 343 341 343 366 280 383 273 372 251 378 222 409 228 414 280 420 292 390 300 374 360 359 437 306 418 313 391 272 415 Edmund Burke - statesmanrect 418 220 452 287 Pasqual Paoli - Corsican independentpoly 455 238 484 253 505 303 495 363 501 377 491 443 429 439 423 375 466 352 Charles Burney - music historianpoly 501 279 546 237 567 239 572 308 560 326 537 316 530 300 502 289 Thomas Warton - poet laureatepoly 572 453 591 446 572 373 603 351 562 325 592 288 573 260 573 248 591 243 615 254 637 280 655 334 705 396 656 419 625 382 609 391 613 453 Oliver Goldsmith - writerrect 450 86 584 188 prob.The Infant Academy 1782rect 286 87 376 191 unknown paintingcircle 100 141 20 An unknown portraitpoly 503 192 511 176 532 176 534 200 553 219 554 234 541 236 525 261 506 261 511 220 515 215 servant - poss. Dr Johnson's hierrect 12 10 702 500 Use button to enlarge or use hyperlinks

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When the "Life of Johnson" was published in 1791 it at once commanded the admiration that Boswell had sought for so long, and it has suffered no diminution since. Its style was revolutionary - unlike other biographies of that era it directly incorporated conversations that Boswell had noted down at the time for his journals. He also included far more personal and human details than contemporary readers were accustomed to. Instead of writing a respectful and dry record of Johnson's public life, in the style of the time, he painted a vivid portrait of the complete man. It is still often said to be the greatest biography yet written, and the longevity of Dr Johnson's fame perhaps owes much to the work.

The question has often been asked of how a man such as Boswell could have produced so remarkable a work as the "Life of Johnson." Among those who attempted an answer were Macaulay and Carlyle: the former arguing, paradoxically, that Boswell's uninhibited folly and triviality were his greatest qualifications; the latter, with deeper insight, replying that beneath such traits were a mind to discern excellence and a heart to appreciate it, aided by the power of accurate observation and considerable dramatic ability.(Macaulay's venomous condemnation of Boswell's personality may have had a political foundation: Boswell was a Tory, and as such a target for Whig historian Macaulay's attacks. In addition, Macaulay's grandfather was the victim of one of Johnson's sharpest rebukes: "Sir, are you so grossly ignorant of human nature, as not to know that a man may be very sincere in good principles, without having good practice?"). [ [http://www.fullbooks.com/A-Short-Biographical-Dictionary-of-English2.html A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature by John W. Cousin - Full Text Free Book (Part 2/13) ] ]


Boswell was present at the meeting of the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in May 1787 set up to persuade William Wilberforce to lead the abolition movement in Parliament. However, the abolitionist Thomas Clarkson records that by 1788 Boswell "after having supported the cause... became inimical to it."

Boswell's most prominent display of support for the slavery movement was his 1791 poem 'No Abolition of Slavery; or the Universal Empire of Love,' which lampooned Clarkson, Wilberforce and Pitt. The poem also supports the common suggestion of the pro-slavery movement, that the slaves actually enjoyed their lot: "The cheerful gang! - the negroes see / Perform the task of industry."

Discovery of papers

In the 1920s a great part of Boswell's private papers, including intimate journals for much of his life, were discovered at Malahide Castle, north of Dublin. These provide a hugely revealing insight into the life and thoughts of the man. They were sold to the American collector Ralph H. Isham and have since passed to Yale University, which has published general and scholarly editions of his journals and correspondence. A second cache was discovered soon after and also purchased by Isham. A substantially longer edition of "A Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides" was published in 1936 based on his original manuscript. His "London Journal 1762-63", the first of the Yale journal publications, appeared in 1950. The last, "The Great Biographer, 1789-1795", was published in 1989.



* "Dorando, a Spanish Tale" (1767, anonymously)
* "Account of Corsica" (1768)
* "The Hypochondriack" (1777-1783, a monthly series in the "London Magazine")
* "A Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides" (1785)
* "The Life of Samuel Johnson" (1791, reprinted in Everyman's Library)
* " [http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/20360 No Abolition of Slavery] (1791) (poem)
* The Life of Samuel Johnson, Facsimile Reprint of First Issue of the First Edition, bound with The Principal Corrections and Additions to the First Edition, 2 volumes (ISBN 978-4-901481-69-4) www.aplink.co.jp/synapse/4-901481-69-X.htm

Published journals

* "Boswell's London Journal, 1762-1763"
* "Boswell in Holland, 1763-1764, including his correspondence with Belle de Zuylen (ZeÌlide)"
* ""
* ""
* "Boswell in Search of a Wife, 1766-1769"
* "Boswell for the Defence, 1769-1774"
* ""
* "Boswell in Extremes, 1776-1778"
* ""
* "Boswell, the Applause of the Jury, 1782-1785"
* "Boswell, the English Experiment, 1785-1789"
* ""

* Purdie, D.W. (2002). [http://www.rcpe.ac.uk/publications/articles/journal_32_3/paper_8.pdf The Maladies of James Boswell, Advocate.] "Journal of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh" 32, 197-202.
* Clarkson, Thomas (1808). "The History of the Rise, Progress, and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave-Trade by the British Parliament".
* Boswell, James (1791). "No Abolition of Slavery; or the Universal Empire of Love"

* "A Short Biographical Dictionary of English" [http://www.fullbooks.com/A-Short-Biographical-Dictionary-of-English]

External links

* [http://www.archive.org/search.php?query=james%20boswell%20AND%20mediatype%3Atexts Works by James Boswell] at Internet Archive
* [http://www.jamesboswell.info/ James Boswell - a Guide]
* [http://account.corsica.iphlex.com/ James Boswell's "An Account of Corsica" - online book]
* [http://www.hti.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=genpub;idno=ACA2957.0001.001 Young Boswell, by Chauncey Brewster Tinker, Boston: Atlantic monthly press, 1922, University of Michigan Library (Digital Collection)]
* [http://www.untoldlondon.org.uk/archives/TRA38765.html Essay on Johnson, Boswell and the Abolition of Slavery]


NAME= Boswell, James
ALTERNATIVE NAMES=9th Laird of Auchinleck
SHORT DESCRIPTION= Scottish Lawyer, Diarist, Author
DATE OF BIRTH= October 29, 1740
PLACE OF BIRTH= Edinburgh, Scotland
DATE OF DEATH= May 19, 1795
PLACE OF DEATH= London, England

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