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James Boswell

James Boswell James Boswell[1†]

James Boswell, 9th Laird of Auchinleck (29 October 1740 – 19 May 1795), was a Scottish biographer, diarist, and lawyer, born in Edinburgh[1†][2†][3†]. He is best known for his biography of his friend and older contemporary, the English writer Samuel Johnson, which is commonly said to be the greatest biography written in the English language[1†][2†][3†]. A great mass of Boswell’s diaries, letters, and private papers were recovered from the 1920s to the 1950s, and their ongoing publication by Yale University has transformed his reputation[1†].

Boswell was the eldest son of a judge, Alexander Boswell, Lord Auchinleck, and his wife Euphemia Erskine[1†]. As the eldest son, he was heir to his family’s estate of Auchinleck in Ayrshire[1†]. Boswell’s mother was a strict Calvinist, and he felt that his father was cold to him[1†]. As a child, he was delicate[1†]. At the age of five, he was sent to James Mundell’s academy, an advanced institution by the standards of the time, where he was instructed in English, Latin, writing and arithmetic[1†].

Early Years and Education

James Boswell was born on 29 October 1740 in Blair’s Land on the east side of Parliament Close behind St Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh[1†]. He was the eldest son of a judge, Alexander Boswell, Lord Auchinleck, and his wife Euphemia Erskine[1†]. As the eldest son, he was heir to his family’s estate of Auchinleck in Ayrshire[1†]. Boswell’s mother was a strict Calvinist, and he felt that his father was cold to him[1†]. As a child, he was delicate[1†].

At the age of five, Boswell was sent to James Mundell’s academy, an advanced institution by the standards of the time, where he was instructed in English, Latin, writing, and arithmetic[1†][2†][1†]. However, Boswell hated the select day school to which he was sent at age 5, and from 8 to 13 he was taught at home by tutors[1†][2†][1†].

From 1753 to 1758, he went through the arts course at the University of Edinburgh[1†][2†][1†]. Returning to the university in 1758 to study law, he became enthralled by the theatre and fell in love with a Roman Catholic actress[1†][2†].

During his studies, he suffered an episode of serious depression but recovered fully[1†]. This period of his life was marked by various publications (many in verse and most of them anonymous) that give no indication of conspicuous talent[1†][2†].

Career Development and Achievements

James Boswell’s career was marked by his passion for metropolitan culture, gregariousness, high spirits, and attractiveness to women[2†][1†]. He was a product of the Scottish Enlightenment, who studied at Glasgow University under Adam Smith and loved to meet the great thinkers of the day[2†][4†].

In 1758, Boswell returned to the University of Edinburgh to study law[2†][1†]. However, he became enthralled by the theatre and fell in love with a Roman Catholic actress[2†][1†]. His father, Lord Auchinleck, thought it prudent to send him to the University of Glasgow, where he attended the lectures of Adam Smith[2†][1†]. In the spring of 1760, he ran away to London[2†][1†].

Boswell was passionately fond of metropolitan culture and found that London offered just the combination of gross and refined pleasures that seemed to fulfill him[2†][1†]. At this time, he contracted gonorrhea, an affliction that he was to endure many times in the course of his life[2†][1†].

From 1760 to 1762, Boswell studied law at home under strict supervision and sought release from boredom in gallantry, in a waggish society called the Soaping Club, and in scribbling[2†][1†]. His publications during this period (many in verse and most of them anonymous) give no indication of conspicuous talent[2†][1†].

When Boswell came of age, he was eager to enter the foot guards[2†][1†]. Lord Auchinleck agreed that if he passed his trials in civil law, he would receive a supplementary annuity and be allowed to go to London to seek a commission through influence[2†][1†].

Boswell is best known for his biography of his friend and older contemporary, the English writer Samuel Johnson, which is commonly said to be the greatest biography written in the English language[2†][1†]. A great mass of Boswell’s diaries, letters, and private papers were recovered from the 1920s to the 1950s, and their ongoing publication by Yale University has transformed his reputation[2†][1†].

First Publication of His Main Works

James Boswell’s literary output was prolific, and his works have had a significant impact on the field of biography. Here are some of his main works:

  1. The Cub at Newmarket[1†]: This was Boswell’s first major work, published in 1762 by James Dodsley[1†].
  2. Letters Between the Honourable Andrew Erskine, and James Boswell, Esq.[1†]: Published in 1763, this collection of letters offers insights into Boswell’s early writing style and his friendship with Andrew Erskine[1†].
  3. Dorando, a Spanish Tale[1†]: Published anonymously in 1767, this is one of Boswell’s lesser-known works[1†].
  4. Account of Corsica, The Journal of a Tour to That Island, and Memoirs of Pascal Paoli[1†][2†]: Published in 1768, this book is both a travelogue of his tour to Corsica and a biography of the Corsican leader Pascal Paoli[1†][2†]. It was one of his successful travel books[1†][5†].
  5. The Rampager[1†]: This is a series of 20 essays published sporadically in the Public Advertiser from 1770 to 1782[1†].
  6. The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.[1†][6†][2†]: Published in 1790, this is Boswell’s most famous work and is considered a classic in the field of biography[1†][6†][2†]. It provides a detailed account of the life of his friend and mentor, Samuel Johnson[1†][6†][2†].

Boswell’s works are characterized by his meticulous attention to detail and his ability to bring his subjects to life. His biography of Samuel Johnson, in particular, has been praised for its depth and insight, and it continues to be widely read and studied today[1†][6†][2†].

Analysis and Evaluation

James Boswell’s work is characterized by several distinctive traits that have contributed to his enduring reputation as a biographer, diarist, essayist, poet, and critic[7†]. His acute grasp of social settings and human nature, combined with his rigid attention to realistic depiction, has been widely recognized[7†]. Boswell’s responsive sensibility and willingness to engage in public self-analysis and self-exposure are also notable aspects of his work[7†].

Boswell’s conversational style and pictorial documentation of life are particularly evident in his nonfiction works such as the “Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides” (1785)[7†]. His masterpiece, “The Life of Samuel Johnson” (1791), is esteemed for its in-depth life history combined with anecdotes and dialogues[7†]. This work firmly established biography as a leading literary form[7†].

In addition to “The Life of Samuel Johnson,” Boswell’s large collection of journals and letters further heightens his reputation as an engagingly introspective writer, unique in vision and authorial voice[7†]. His writings reflect his elevated prose style, moralistic bent, and Augustan wit, which were influenced by Joseph Addison’s and Richard Steele’s Spectator essays[7†].

Boswell’s works provide a vivid picture of life in the 18th century, and his detailed and insightful biographies have had a significant impact on the field of biography[7†]. His works continue to be widely read and studied today[7†].

Personal Life

James Boswell was married to his first cousin, Margaret Montgomerie[1†][2†][8†][9†]. They were both born in Ayrshire, Scotland[1†][8†]. Together, they had five children[1†][8†]. Boswell became the Laird of Auchinleck upon the death of his father in 1782[1†][8†]. He devoted much time and money to the care of the Estate[1†][8†].

Before his marriage to Margaret Montgomerie, Boswell had various schemes of marriage and maintained a liaison with a young Mrs. Dodds[1†][9†]. They had a daughter, Sally, who, like Charles, seems to have died in infancy[1†][9†].

Boswell’s personal life was marked by his passion for metropolitan culture, his gregarious nature, high spirits, and attractiveness to women[1†][2†]. London, with its combination of gross and refined pleasures, seemed to fulfill him[1†][2†]. However, he also suffered from bouts of serious illness[1†][10†].

Conclusion and Legacy

James Boswell’s life and works have left an indelible mark on the world of literature[11†][2†][12†]. His biography of Samuel Johnson is often considered the greatest biography produced in the English language[11†][12†]. It has probably had more readers than any other biography written in English[11†][12†]. The 20th-century publication of his journals proved him to be also one of the world’s greatest diarists[11†][2†].

For a long time, it was believed that Boswell’s private papers had been destroyed shortly after his death[11†]. However, the bulk of them were recovered in the 1920s at Malahide Castle near Dublin and sold to an American collector[11†]. These papers, as well as others found at Malahide Castle during the 1930s, were united with another portion discovered in Aberdeenshire in the home of descendants of Boswell’s executor and sold to Yale University[11†]. The systematic program of their multivolume publication, beginning with Boswell’s London Journal, 1762–63 (1950), gives an extraordinary picture of an enlightened yet tormented man[11†]. He was a participant in the intellectual debates of his time who was often driven by sensual appetites and religious fears[11†].

The Life of Johnson will always be regarded as Boswell’s greatest achievement[11†]. However, since the publication of his papers, its unique values can be seen to be derivative[11†]. It is the stretches of Johnson’s conversation that make it superior, and those conversations were lifted bodily from the journal, sometimes with so little change that the journal leaves served as printer’s copy[11†]. The extended commercial publication of the journal, by proving his ability to compete with 20th-century authors on their own terms, has confirmed and added to Boswell’s stature as an artist[11†]. It also for the first time gives the general reader a properly complex portrait[11†].

Key Information

References and Citations:

  1. Wikipedia (English) - James Boswell [website] - link
  2. Britannica - James Boswell: Scottish biographer [website] - link
  3. New World Encyclopedia - James Boswell [website] - link
  4. BBC News - James Boswell: The man who re-invented biography [website] - link
  5. Harvard College- HOLLIS Archives - Collection: James Boswell manuscripts [website] - link
  6. Goodreads - Author: Books by James Boswell [website] - link
  7. eNotes - James Boswell Critical Essays [website] - link
  8. JamesBoswell.scot - Who Was James Boswell? [website] - link
  9. Britannica - James Boswell - Scottish Lawyer, Laird, Biographer [website] - link
  10. James Boswell .info - James Boswell (1740-1795) [website] - link
  11. Britannica - James Boswell - Biographer, Diarist, Writer [website] - link
  12. eNotes - The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. Summary [website] - link
  13. Britannica - James Boswell summary [website] - link
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