James Boswell (1740-1795) is one of the great writers of the 18th century, though from a certain point of view, his greatest work wasn’t available until the 20th century.
Boswell was a Scot, the 9th Laird of Auchinleck, a jurist, and a garrulous, hypochondriacal bon vivant who everyone seemed to like, though one suspects that they didn’t know why. But it’s not for these reasons, however fascinating, that one loves Boswell.
Indeed, one loves Boswell because of two of the books he published in his lifetime, and for one massive work–for one cannot call it a book or a series–upon which he worked intermittently throughout his lifetime and which was subsequently suppressed by his family and heirs and then eventually published in the 20th century.
Before we move on to the books themselves, it’s crucial to understand that there’s one fact around which Boswell’s entire writing life turned: his friendship with and admiration of Samuel Johnson. Even though Boswell counted many of the leading artistic and literary men and women of his day as friends, Johnson is the pole around which Boswell’s world turned, both while Johnson was alive and also after his death.
A Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides
In 1773, Boswell managed to convince Johnson to join him on a tour of the highlands and western islands of Scotland. Johnson was more than sixty; Boswell was just thirty-three. They traveled together from Edinburgh up the eastern coast of Scotland, through the highlands, to a number of the Hebrides, stopped for a visit at Auchinleck, and then returned to Edinburgh.
Both Johnson and Boswell each produced a book based on their journals from this journey. Boswell’s is anecdotal, intimate, detailed, and somewhat chirpy; Johnson’s tends toward a philosophical stoicism and is less detailed. They should be read together; it’s not often that one has a chance to see the same events through the eyes of two great writers who are also very different men.
Boswell met Johnson in May 1763 and they quickly became friends and they stayed friends until Johnson died in 1784 at the age of 75. Early in their relationship, Boswell began to and continue to keep detailed notes about what Johnson did and said; it’s from these notes that Boswell constructed his life of Johnson, with the help of a great deal of secondary material and information from Johnson himself.
Boswell’s life of Johnson (and there are many others, some written shortly after his death, and a number of fine, scholarly works published in recent years) is episodic, vivid, and highly idiosyncratic–but it’s also one of the greatest biographies in English. It’s entertaining, instructive, amusing, and more than worth the time, whether you read it from cover to cover, or just dip in here and there at random.
If you are interested in Johnson’s life in a more modern biography, read Walter Jackson Bate’s Samuel Johnson.
In 1762, Boswell went to London, after convincing his father to let him try for a position in the army. When he arrived in London, he began keeping a journal–a practice that he kept up, off and on, throughout the rest of his life. When they were finally published in the 20th century (which is a fascinating story in itself), they ran to a dozen volumes. Boswell chronicles all of the things he wants to do, the things he does instead, and everything in between. His voice is unique, and he’s psychologically penetrating in ways that never lose their freshness. Self-examination and self-construction don’t even begin to describe Boswell’s project.
Start with the London Journal: 1762-1763, and read Boswell’s stories of living (as a bit of rake) in London, as a young aristocrat turned loose on the English capital. At the end of this volume, he meets Samuel Johnson and forms the most important relationship of his life; but, before that (and after, for that matter) he has a good deal of fun, alloyed with no more suffering than he generally deserves.
If you’re interested in reading the Journals, be prepared to visit the library. With the exception of the London Journal (which sold well because of its unexpurgated salaciousness and can be found both new and secondhand), the 20th century editions of the journals did not go into many printings.