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Definition: Boswell, James from Philip's Encyclopedia

Scottish biographer and writer. As a young man, he travelled widely in Europe, meeting Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. An inveterate hero-worshipper, Boswell found his vocation as the friend and biographer of Samuel Johnson. His monumental Life of Samuel Johnson (1791) is regarded not only as his masterpiece but also one of the greatest biographies in English. Boswell's other works include An Account of Corsica (1768) and The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (1785), an account of his travels with Johnson. See also biography


Summary Article: Boswell, James from The Columbia Encyclopedia

1740–95, Scottish author, b. Edinburgh; son of a distinguished judge. At his father's insistence the young Boswell reluctantly studied law. Admitted to the bar in 1766, he practiced throughout his life, but his true interest was in a literary career and in associating with the great men of his day. Boswell first met Samuel Johnson on a trip to London in 1763. The same year he traveled about the Continent, where he made the acquaintance of Rousseau and Voltaire. He achieved literary fame with his Account of Corsica (1768), based on his visit to that island and on his acquaintance with the Corsican patriot Pasquale Paoli. Boswell married his cousin Margaret Montgomerie in 1769.

In 1773 Boswell became a member of Johnson's club, to which Burke, Garrick, Reynolds, Goldsmith, and other 18th-century luminaries also belonged. Later that year he and Johnson toured Scotland, a visit Boswell described in The Journal of a Tour of the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (1785; complete edition from manuscript, 1936). His great work, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D., appeared in 1791. In it Boswell recorded Johnson's conversation minutely, but with a fine sense of critical judgment. So skillful was his work that Johnson is perhaps better remembered today for his sayings in the biography than for his own works. The curious combination of Boswell's own character (he was vainglorious, a heavy drinker, and a libertine) and his genius at biography have intrigued later critics, many of whom conclude that he is the greatest biographer in Western literature. Misconduct led to poverty and ill health in his final years.

In the 20th cent. great masses of Boswell manuscripts—journals, letters, and other papers—were discovered, most of them at Malahide Castle, Ireland. Lt. Col. Ralph H. Isham purchased the first in 1927 and sold these and later finds to Yale Univ. Publication of these "Yale Editions of the Private Papers," under the editorship of Frederick A. Pottle and others, reached many volumes. The recent findings, most particularly his voluminous journals, have enhanced Boswell's literary reputation. Always lively and, at times, even exciting, the journals portray Boswell's daily life in extraordinary detail. They are written in an easy, colloquial style, which resembles the style of many 20th-century authors.

  • See Pottle, F. A., James Boswell: The Earlier Years, 1740–1769 (2d ed. 1984), F. Brady, James Boswell: The Later Years, 1769–95 (1984), and P. Martin, A Life of James Boswell (2000);.
  • studies by J. L. Clifford (1970), D. L. Passler (1971), H. Pearson (1958, repr. 1972), W. R. Siebenschuh (1972), and A. Sisman (2001).
The Columbia Encyclopedia, © Columbia University Press 2017

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