Analysis of James Boswell’s "Life of Johnson" - Best Biography in the English Language

"The Life of Johnson is assuredly a great, a very great work. Homer is not more decidedly the first of heroic poets, Shakespeare is not more decidedly the first of dramatists, Demosthenes is not more decidedly the first of orators, than Boswell is the first of biographers."

Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800 - 1859)

James Boswell (1740-1795) is a Scottish writer who became a close friend and biographer of the writer Samuel Johnson. Boswell, whose father was a well-known advocate, was born in Edinburgh, and educated at Edinburgh High School, the universities of Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Utrecht. Read More Criticism Boswell was admitted to both the Scottish and English bars and practiced law but devoted himself primarily to the pursuit of a literary career. His most important early works were An Account of Corsica, The Journal of a Tour to that Island, and Memoirs of Pascal Paoli, which won him some reputation as a writer. Notably, An Account of Corsica is a sympathetic study of the struggle for independence of that island, written after an extended tour of Europe.   The historical part of this book is commonplace, but the Journal is vivacious and attractive. He settled down, however, as much as his nature permitted him, to read for the Scottish Bar, diversifying his studies by writing verse and prose of would-be sprightliness, and by cultivating the society of the most eminent men in Edinburgh.

The 16th of May, 1763, was a red-letter day in his life, for then, during another London visit; he was introduced to Dr. Johnson, in the back-parlour of Tom Davies, the actor and bookseller. The somewhat incongruous pair aged respectively twenty-two and fifty- three, almost at once became firm friends until Johnson's death in 1784. During the twenty-one years which remained of Johnson’s life, they met on about two hundred and seventy days. Read More Criticism Boswell was inordinately delighted with his success, and, somewhat characteristically, called on Chatham in Corsican attire, which he also wore at a Shakespeare festival at Stratford in 1769.  

James Boswell
The year 1973 is eventful. In the autumn of 1773 Boswell visited the Hebrides with Johnson; earlier in that year he was, with difficulty, was elected to Johnson's Literary Club, which included the statesman Edmund Burke, the writer Oliver Goldsmith, the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds, and the actor David Garrick. Read More Criticism Thereafter, Boswell devoted much of his time to compiling detailed records of Johnson's activities and conversation. Boswell's accounts covered periods of daily association with Johnson in London and also described a trip that the two friends made through Scotland to the Hebrides in 1773.  Johnson’s death in 1784 made him feel at liberty to publish his Journal of the Tour to the Hebrides (1786) and to settle down to the composition of his greater work. He was called to the English Bar in 1786, and for a short time held the post of Recorder of Carlisle. His last years were embittered by the death of his wife, and by financial embarrassments, but were sweetened by the success of his Life of Samuel Johnson, which appeared, after some delays, in May, 1791. Read More Criticism In fact, Boswell is best known for the latter work, which is generally considered a masterpiece of biography. He saw a second edition through the press, but before he had completed his work on a third edition, he died (19th May, 1795).

 Boswell’s Life of Johnson is, by universal consent, the best biography in the English language. Its general scheme was modeled upon Mason’s Life of Gray, but thanks to his consummate biographical ability, Boswell has completely out-classed his model. He hunted Ursa Major with all the cunning of an old shikaree, disregarding the comment of his father that “Jamie was gone clean gyte “, and had pinned himself to the tail of “an auld dominie that keepit a schule and ca’d it an academy”. He also disregarded Johnson’s well- known objection—” Sir, you appear to have only two subjects, yourself and me, and I am sick of both “. Some critics have maintained that Boswell’s transcendent merit as a biographer was due to his having been a fool. Such a theory is quite untenable. He had many foolish qualities; but the merits of his book are artistic, not photographic or phonographic merits. Read More Criticism He was as completely master of his material as was Gibbon, and was equally unsparing of himself in the trouble which he took to handle it to the best of his ability. He revealed himself in his book as unsparingly as Pepys revealed himself in his Diary, but printed and published his revelations while Pepys locked his away in cipher. He is, therefore, a man whom it is easy to love, but difficult to respect. His book has conferred upon Johnson an immortality which Irene, Rasselas, and even The Lives of the Poets would never have won; and., thanks to Boswell, Johnson. “in his habit as he liv’d” is better known to us than many of our contemporaries, whose biographies have been written by less able hands.