Young James Boswell, as portrayed by the Scottish portrait painter George Willison. Boswell was a legal advocate, living in Edinburgh at the time. photo

Good heaven! What is Boswell?

How 'The Biographer' invented himself

By Walker Mimms


When the 8,000-page journal of James Boswell (1740-1795) was discovered in a chest of drawers in Malahide Castle, Dublin, in the 1920s, this provincial Scottish lawyer, whose reputation rested almost entirely on the documentation of celebrity, became a literary genius overnight. “Many of the greatest men that ever lived have written biography,” Lord Macaulay had pronounced, a good hundred years before the discovery; “Boswell was one of the smallest men that ever lived, and he has beaten them all.” The unveiling of this breathtaking document – gossiped about in literary circles for decades, published in a limited vanity edition in the 1930s, then brought out by Yale in fourteen volumes from the 1950s through the ‘80s – showed that the greatest biography in the English language, Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson (1791), was only a slice, in some parts literally shorn off, of this small man’s monument to his own, very large mind.

It wasn’t learning that made his mind great. Boswell had an average intellect. But he paid close attention to it. This was his gift. Take his run-in with “Signor Gonorrhea” on a trip to London at age twenty-two, 1763. Before:

A more voluptuous night I never enjoyed. Five times was I fairly lost in supreme rapture. Louisa was madly fond of me; she declared I was a prodigy, and asked me if this was not extraordinary for human nature. I said twice as much might be, but this was not, although in my own mind I was somewhat proud of my performance ... Louisa had an exquisite mixture of delicacy and wantonness that made me enjoy her with more relish. Indeed, I could not help roving in fancy to the embraces of some other ladies which my lively imagination strongly pictured. I don’t know if that was altogether fair. However, Louisa had all the advantage. She said she was quite fatigued and could neither stir leg nor arm ... I have painted this night as well as I could. The description is faint; but I surely may be styled a Man of Pleasure.

And after, while clapped-up in bed:

I thought London a bad place for me. I imagined I had lost all relish of it. Nay, so very strange is wayward, diseased fancy that it will make us wish for the things most disagreeable to us merely to procure a change of objects, being sick and tired of those it presently has ... In the afternoon, my brother came. He brought many low old Sunday ideas when we were boys into my memory. I wanted to indulge my gloom in solitude. I wearied of him. I showed it. I was angry at myself. I was peevish. He was good enough to say he would go and come just as I chose. He left me. I remained ill.

Here stood on each page an individual, more vivid in his private jottings than Clarissa Harlowe or Samuel Pepys. The latter, probably Boswell’s closest diarist predecessor, a London naval administrator of the 17th century, is remarkably observant in the diary he kept for nine years. But he does not plumb the depths or dramatize as Boswell does. Pepys, 1663:

Up betimes and to my office (having first been angry with my brother John, and in the heat of my sudden passion called him Asse and coxcomb, for which I am sorry, it being but for leaving the key of his chamber with a spring lock within side of his door), and there we sat all the morning, and at noon dined at home, and there found a little girl, which she told my wife her name was Jinny, by which name we shall call her. I think a good likely girl, and a parish child of St. Bride’s of honest parentage, and recommended by the churchwarden ... Home in the evening my viall (and lute new-strung being brought home too), and I would have paid Mr. Hunt for it, but he did not come along with it himself, which I expected and was angry for it, so much is it against my nature to owe anything to any body. This evening the girl that was brought to me to-day for so good a one, being cleansed of lice this day by my wife, and good, new clothes put on her back, she run away Goody Taylour that was shewing her the way to the bakehouse, and we heard no more of her.

The details here, like those of a Defoe novel, are quiet (though not weightless). They revolve around their narrator. But for Boswell, the everyday details of his life and the people he meets are inseparable from his self. What is remarkable is that he records them as such. Johnson may have been the most important person in his life and the star of his journal, but the gestation of an identity is without a doubt Boswell’s main subject.

Read the rest of this story in the Summer 2016 issue of Artenol. Order yours today

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