1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Boswell, James

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BOSWELL, JAMES (1740-1705), Scottish man of letters, the biographer of Samuel Johnson, was born at Edinburgh on the 29th of October 1740. His grandfather was in good practice at the Scottish bar, and his father, Alexander Boswell of Auchinleck, was also a noted advocate, who, on his elevation to the supreme court in 1754, took the name of his Ayrshire property as Lord Auchinleck. A Thomas Boswell (said upon doubtful evidence to have been a minstrel in the household of James IV.) was killed at Flodden, and since 1513 the family had greatly improved its position in the world by intermarriage with the first Scots nobility. In contradiction to his father, a rigid Presbyterian Whig, James was “a fine boy, wore a white cockade, and prayed for King James until his uncle Cochrane gave him a shilling to pray for King George, which he accordingly did” (“Whigs of all ages are made in the same way” was Johnson's comment). He met one or two English boys, and acquired a “tincture of polite letters” at the high school in Edinburgh. Like R. L. Stevenson, he early frequented society such as that of the actors at the Edinburgh theatre, sternly disapproved of by his father. At the university, where he was constrained for a season to study civil law, he met William Johnson Temple, his future friend and correspondent. The letters of Boswell to his “Atticus” were first published by Bentley in 1857. One winter he spent at Glasgow, where he sat under Adam Smith, who was then lecturing on moral philosophy and rhetoric.

In 1760 he was first brought into contact with “the elegance, the refinement and the liberality” of London society, for which he had long sighed. The young earl of Eglintoun took him to Newmarket and introduced him into the society of “the great, the gay and the ingenious.” He wrote a poem called “The Cub at Newmarket,” published by Dodsley in 1762, and had visions of entering the Guards. Reclaimed with some difficulty by his father from his rakish companions in the metropolis, he contrived to alleviate the irksomeness of law study in Edinburgh by forcing his acquaintance upon the celebrities then assembled in the northern capital, among them Kames, Blair, Robertson, Hume and Sir David Dairymple (Lord Hailes), of whose sayings on the Northern Circuit he kept a brief journal. Boswell had already realized his vocation, the exercise of which was to give a new word to the language. He had begun to Boswellize. He was already on the track of bigger game — the biggest available in the Britain of that day. In the spring of 1763 Boswell came to a composition with his father. He consented to give up his pursuit of a guidon in the Guards and three and sixpence a day on condition that his father would allow him to study civil law on the continent. He set out in April 1763 by “the best road in Scotland” with a servant, on horseback like himself, in “a cocked hat, a brown wig, brown coat made in the court fashion, red vest, corduroy small clothes and long military boots.” On Monday, the 16th of May 1763, in the back shop of Tom Davies the bookseller, No. 8 Russell Street, Covent Garden, James Boswell first met “Dictionary Johnson,” the great man of his dreams, and was severely buffeted by him. Eight days later, on Tuesday, the 24th of May, Boswell boldly called on Mr Johnson at his chambers on the first floor of No. 1 Inner Temple Lane. On this occasion Johnson pressed him to stay; on the 13th of June he said, “Come to me as often as you can”; on the 25th of June Boswell gave the great man a little sketch of his own life, and Johnson exclaimed with warmth, “Give me your hand; I have [ 298 ] taken a liking to you.” Boswell experienced a variety of sensations, among which exultation was predominant. Some one asked, “Who is this Scotch cur at Johnson's heels?” “He is not a cur,” replied Goldsmith, “he is only a bur. Tom Davies flung him at Johnson in sport, and he has the faculty of sticking.” Johnson was fifty-four at this time and Boswell twenty-three. After June 1763 they met on something like 270 subsequent days. These meetings formed the memorable part of Boswell's life, and they are told inimitably in his famous biography of his friend.

The friendship, consecrated by the most delightful of biographies, and one of the most gorgeous feasts in the whole banquet of letters, was not so ill-assorted as has been inconsiderately maintained. Boswell's freshness at the table of conversation gave a new zest to every maxim that Johnson enunciated, while Boswell developed a perfect genius for interpreting the kind of worldly philosophy at which Johnson was so unapproachable. Both men welcomed an excuse for avoiding the task-work of life. Johnson's favourite indulgence was to talk; Boswell's great idea of success to elicit memorable conversation. Boswell is almost equally admirable as a reporter and as an interviewer, as a collector and as a researcher. He prepared meetings for Johnson, he prepared topics for him, he drew him out on questions of the day, he secured a copy of his famous letter to Lord Chesterfield, he obtained an almost verbatim report of Johnson's interview with the king, he frequented the tea-table of Miss Williams, he attended the testy old scholar on lengthy peregrinations in the Highlands and in the midlands. “Sir,” said Johnson to his follower, “you appear to have only two subjects, yourself and me, and I am sick of both.” Yet thorough as the scheme was from the outset, and admirable as was the devotedness of the biographer, Boswell was far too volatile a man to confine himself to any one ambition in life that was not consistent with a large amount of present fame and notoriety. He would have liked to Boswellize the popular idol Wilkes, or Chatham, or Voltaire, or even the great Frederick himself. As it was, during his continental tour he managed in the autumn of 1765 to get on terms with Pasquale di Paoli, the leader of the Corsican insurgents in their unwise struggle against Genoa. After a few weeks in Corsica he returned to London in February 1766, and was received by Johnson with the utmost cordiality. In accordance with the family compact referred to he was now admitted advocate at Edinburgh, and signalized his return to the law by an enthusiastic pamphlet entitled The Essence of the Douglas Cause (November 1767), in which he vigorously repelled the charge of imposture from the youthful claimant. In the same year he issued a little book called Dorando, containing a history of the Douglas cause in the guise of a Spanish tale, and bringing the story to a conclusion by the triumph of Archibald Douglas in the law courts. Editors who published extracts while the case was still sub judice were censured severely by the court of session; but though his identity was notorious the author himself escaped censure. In the spring of 1768 Boswell published through the Foulis brothers of Glasgow his Account of Corsica, Journal of a Tour to that Island, and Memoirs of Pascal Paoli. The liveliness of personal impression which he managed to communicate to all his books gained for this one a deserved success, and the Tour was promptly translated into French, German, Italian and Dutch. Walpole and others, jeered, but Boswell was talked about everywhere, as Paoli Boswell or Paoli's Englishman, and to aid the mob in the task of identifying him at the Shakespeare jubilee of 1769 he took the trouble to insert a placard in his hat bearing the legend “Corsica Boswell.” The amazing costume of “a Corsican chief” which he wore on this occasion was described at length in the magazines.

On the 25th of November 1769, after a short tour in Ireland undertaken to empty his head of Corsica (Johnson's emphatic direction), Boswell married his cousin Margaret Montgomery at Lainshaw in Ayrshire. For some years henceforth his visits to London were brief, but on the 30th of April 1773 he was present at his admission to the Literary Club, for which honour he had been proposed by Johnson himself, and in the autumn of this year in the course of his tour to the Hebrides Johnson visited the Boswells in Ayrshire. Neither Boswell's father nor his wife shared his enthusiasm for the lexicographer. Lord Auchinleck remarked that Jamie was “gane clean gyte . . . And whose tail do ye think he has pinned himself to now, man? A dominie, an auld dominie, that keepit a schule and ca'd it an academy!” Housewives less prim than Mrs Boswell might have objected to Johnson's habit of turning lighted candles upside down when in the parlour to make them burn better. She called the great man a bear. Boswell's Journal of a Tour in the Hebrides was written for the most part during the journey, but was not published until the spring of 1786. The diary of Pepys was not then known to the public, and Boswell's indiscretions as to the emotions aroused in him by the neat ladies' maids at Inveraray, and the extremity of drunkenness which he exhibited at Corrichatachin, created a literary sensation and sent the Tour through three editions in one year. In the meantime his pecuniary and other difficulties at home were great; he made hardly more than £100 a year by his profession, and his relations with his father were chronically strained. In 1775 he began to keep terms at the Inner Temple and managed to see a good deal of Johnson, between whom and John Wilkes he succeeded in bringing about a meeting at the famous dinner at Dilly's on the 15th of May 1776. On the 30th of August 1782 his father died, leaving him an estate worth £1600 a year. On the 30th of June 1784, Boswell met Johnson for the last time at a dinner at Sir Joshua Reynolds's. He accompanied him back in the coach from Leicester Square to Bolt Court. “We bade adieu to each other affectionately in the carriage. When he had got down upon the foot pavement he called out 'Fare you well'; and without looking back, sprung away with a kind of pathetic briskness, if I may use that expression, which seemed to indicate a struggle to conceal uneasiness, and impressed me with a foreboding of our long, long separation.” Johnson died that year, and two years later the Boswells moved to London. In 1789 Mrs Boswell died, leaving five children. She had been an excellent mother and a good wife, despite the infidelities and drunkenness of her husband, and from her death Boswell relapsed into worse excesses, grievously aggravated by hypochondria. He died of a complication of disorders at his house in Great Poland Street on the 19th of May 1795, and was buried a fortnight later at Auchinleck.

Up to the eve of his last illness Boswell had been busy upon his magnum opus, The Life of Samuel Johnson, which was in process of crystallization to the last. The first edition was published in two quarto volumes in an edition of 1700 copies on the 16th of May 1791. He was preparing a third edition when he died; this was completed by his friend Edmund Malone, who brought out a fifth edition in 1807. That of James Boswell junior (the editor of Malone's Variorum Shakespeare, 1821) appeared in 1811.

The Life of Johnson was written on a scale practically unknown to biographers before Boswell. It is a full-length with all the blotches and pimples revealed (“I will not make my tiger a cat to please anybody,” wrote “Bozzy”). It may be overmuch an exhibition of oddities, but it is also, be it remembered, a pioneer application of the experimental method to the determination of human character. Its size and lack of divisions (to divide it into chapters was an original device of Croker's) are a drawback, and have prevented Boswell's Life from that assured triumph abroad which has fallen to the lot of various English classics such as Robinson Crusoe or Gulliver's Travels. But wherever English is spoken, it has become a veritable sacred book and has pervaded English life and thought in the same way, that the Bible, Shakespeare and Bunyan have done. Boswell has successfully (to use his own phrase) “Johnsonized” Britain, but has not yet Johnsonized the planet. The model originally proposed to himself by Boswell was Mason's Life of Gray, but he far surpassed that, or indeed any other, model. The fashion that Boswell adopted of giving the conversations not in the neutral tints of oratio obliqua but in full oratio recta was a stroke of genius. But he is far from being the mere mechanical transmitter of good things. He is a dramatic and descriptive artist of the first order. The extraordinary vitality of his figures postulates a certain admixture of fiction, and it is certain that Boswell exaggerates the sympathy expressed in word or deed by Johnson for some of his own tenderer foibles. But, on the whole, the best judges are of opinion that Boswell's accuracy is exceptional, as it is undoubtedly seconded by a power of observation of a singular retentiveness and intensity. The difficulty of dramatic description can only be realized, as Jowett well pointed out, by those who have attempted it, and it is not until we compare Boswell's reports with those of less skilful hearers that we can appreciate the skill with which the essence of a conversation is extracted, and the whole scene indicated by a few telling touches. The result is that Johnson, not, it is true, in the early days of his poverty, total idleness and the pride of literature, but in the fulness of fame and competence of fortune from 1763 to 1784, is better known to us than any other man in history. The old theory to explain such a marvel (originally propounded by Gray when the Tour in Corsica appeared) that “any fool may write a valuable book by chance” is now regarded as untenable. If fool is a word to describe Boswell (and his folly was at times transcendent) he wrote his great book because and not in despite of the fact that he was one. There can be no doubt, in fact, that he was a biographical genius, and that he arranged his opportunities just as he prepared his transitions and introduced those inimitable glosses by which Johnson's motives are explained, his state of mind upon particular occasions indicated, and the general feeling of his company conveyed. This remarkable literary faculty, however, was but a fraction of the total make-up requisite to produce such a masterpiece as the Life. There is a touch of genius, too, in the naif and imperturbable good nature and persistency (“Sir, I will not be baited with 'what' and 'why.' 'Why is a cow's tail long?' 'Why is a fox's tail bushy?'”), and even in the abnegation of all personal dignity, with which Boswell pursued his hero. As he himself said of Goldsmith, “He had sagacity enough to cultivate assiduously the acquaintance of Johnson, and his faculties were gradually enlarged.” Character, the vital principle of the individual, is the ignis fatuus of the mechanical biographer. Its attainment may be secured by a variety of means — witness Xenophon, Cellini, Aubrey, Lockhart and Froude — but it has never been attained with such complete intensity as by Boswell in his Life of Johnson. The more we study Boswell, the more we compare him with other biographers, the greater his work appears.

The eleventh edition of Boswell's Johnson was brought out by John Wilson Croker in 1831; in this the original text is expanded by numerous letters and variorum anecdotes and is already knee-deep in annotation. Its blunders provoked the celebrated and mutually corrective criticisms of Macaulay and Carlyle. Its value as an unrivalled granary of Johnsoniana, stored opportunely before the last links with a Johnsonian age had disappeared, has not been adequately recognized. A new edition of the original text was issued in 1874 by Percy Fitzgerald (who has also written a useful life of James Boswell in 3 vols., London, 1891); a six-volume edition, including the Tour and Johnsoniana, was published by the Rev. Alexander Napier in 1884; the definitive edition is that by Dr Birkbeck Hill in 6 vols., 1887, with copious annotations and a model index. A generously illustrated edition was completed in 1907 in two large volumes by Roger Ingpen, and reprints of value have also been edited by R. Carruthers (with woodcuts), A. Birrell, Mowbray Morris (Globe edition) and Austin Dobson. A short biography of Boswell was written in 1896 by W. Keith Leask. Boswell's commonplace-book was published in 1876, under the title of Boswelliana, with a memoir by the Rev. C. Rogers. (T. Se.)