James Boswell


James Boswell

James Boswell was born in Edinburgh on October 29th 1740. He wrote the first modern biography in British literature, The Life of Samuel Johnson which was published in 1791. For the first time this was an explanation of a life rather than just a chronicle of it.

Boswell was born into the gentry, his father and grandfather had both been judges and he was educated during the enlightenment in Scotland attending the lectures of Adam Smith and William Robertson. Boswell was expected to follow the family tradition and become a lawyer but he ran off to London.

He eventually began to study law in Utrecht but again lost patience and this time left to tour Europe meeting Voltaire and Rousseau along the way and also spending some time fighting with Corsican rebels against France. In 1768 he published a book about Corsican independence using part of the Declaration of Arbroath. He always had a romantic notion of Scottish history despite being a unionist.

When his allowance ran out he returned to Britain and struck up a friendship with Samuel Johnson (the man who wrote the first dictionary) whom he persuaded to embark on a tour of the Scottish highlands with him in 1773.

A year after Johnson's death in 1784 Boswell published his account of the trip entitled Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson. It made him famous and in 1791 he followed it up with The Life of Samuel Johnson which was a meticulous account of Johnson's life and is still seen by many as the greatest biography ever written.

Boswell was caricatured and ridiculed by the press for following Johnson so closely in fact the term Boswell or Boswellian has passed into the English language and is used to mean a constant companion or observer.

Boswell died in 1794 and it wasn't until the 1920's that his personal journals were discovered. In them he had recorded his entire adult life over thirty-five years. He was a colourful character to say the least, reacting against the dour Presbyterianism of his father in youth, seeking the approval of the intellectual Johnson in later life and afflicted by addictions to prostitutes, gambling and of course drinking. His legal career was unsuccessful but his impact on English literature was considerable and his work is still widely read today.