James Boswell(1740-95) was a lawyer, diarist, and biographer, the eldest son of Alexander Boswell, Lord Auchinleck (pron. Affleck), a Scottish judge who took his title from the family estate in Ayrshire. He reluctantly studied law at Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Utrecht universities, despite the literary and political ambitions demonstrated by numerous pamphlets and verses which he published anonymously from 1760 onwards, many of them also expressing his love of the theatre.
He met Samuel Johnson on 16 May 1763 in London. He was much drawn to him and cultivated his friendship during his occasional visits to London. Subsequently, he made his great venture by writing an original work on his hero -a new literary type-biography. He then went to Holland (where he met and courted Isabelle de Charrière) and on through Europe to Italy. His extraordinary persistence meant he met with Rousseau and Voltaire; Rousseau inspired him with zeal for the cause of Corsican liberty, and he visited Corsica in 1765, establishing a lifelong friendship with General Paoli. On his return to Scotland he ‘passed advocate’ and was to practise there and in England for the rest of his life. His first substantial work, An Account of Corsica (1768), was followed in December of the same year by a book of edited essays ‘in favour of the brave Corsicans’. In this year he married his cousin Margaret Montgomerie.
Boswell started his literary career by writing verses that received little recognition. In 1763 he published a volume of letters –The letters between the Hon. Andrew Erskine and James Boswell, Esq.-, but he achieves celebrity for his Account of Corsica, published in 1768. His literary triumph, however, came from his great biographical work on Johnson – The Life of Samuel Johnson -published in 1791.
Boswell visited London as frequently as possible, spending much time with Johnson, whose biography he already planned. They made their celebrated tour of Scotland and the Hebrides in 1773, in which year Boswell was elected a member of the Club. From 1777 to 1783 he contributed a series of essays, as ‘The Hypochondriack’, to the London Magazine, on such subjects as drinking (a constant preoccupation), diaries, memory, and hypochondria. His last meeting with Johnson was in 1784; his Journal of a Tour of the Hebrides appeared in 1785 after Johnson’s death. The rest of Boswell’s life was devoted to an unsuccessful pursuit of a political career (he was recorder of Carlisle, 1788-90) and to the immense task of assembling materials for his life of Johnson, a labour in which he was encouraged by Edmond Malone.
As a biographer, Boswell proves to be greatly successful. The Life of Samuel Johnson is incontestably the greatest biography in the English language. It is not too much to claim it as the greatest biography in any language.
As a biographer, Boswell displays his original art. The work is elaborately planned and majestically built. Boswell never pushes his own self in the story of his hero. His aim, as a biographer, is to study the man with whom he is concerned from various directions. This is done by him with immense success, and that is why The Life of Samuel Johnson remains a masterpiece in the literary works of the eighteenth century and of the English biographical literature of all times.