The Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell

The Life of Samuel Johnson is a famous biography by James Boswell, published in 1791. Boswell informed Johnson in 1772 of his intention to write his life and had been collecting materials for this purpose as part of his journal since their first meeting in 1763. After Johnson’s death in 1784, he set to work arranging and adding to his ‘prodigious multiplicity of materials’, a task which involved him in great labour, perplexity, and vexation, though he received invaluable help from Edmond Malone, who also edited revised versions after Boswell’s death.

Despite early criticism of its monumentality and occasional triviality, and some modern skepticism about its method, Boswell’s Johnson remains the most celebrated biography in the English language. Many have claimed it as the greatest biography written in English. Boswell learned much from Johnson’s own expertise in biography and brought to the task boundless curiosity and persistence. His portrait is vivid and intimate, a ‘Flemish picture’ including letters, anecdotes, and much conversation, and full of trifling incidents as well as significant events. Boswell’s skill in stage-managing encounters (as with John Wilkes, or Johnson’s old fellow collegian, Oliver Edwards, 1711-91) adds greatly to the work’s liveliness. There are many biographies and biographers of Samuel Johnson, but James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson is the one best known and widely read today.

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