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Life of Samuel Johnson  
Author James Boswell
Country United Kingdom
Subject(s) Samuel Johnson
Genre(s) Biography
Publication date 1791

The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (1791) is a biography of Dr. Samuel Johnson written by James Boswell. It is regarded as an important stage in the development of the modern genre of biography; many have claimed it as the greatest biography written in English. While Boswell's personal acquaintance with his subject only began in 1763, when Johnson was 54 years old, Boswell covered the entirety of Johnson's life by means of additional research. The biography takes many critical liberties with Johnson's life, as Boswell makes various changes to Johnson's quotations and even censors many comments. Regardless of these actions, modern biographers have found Boswell's biography as an important source of information. The work was popular among early audiences and with modern critics, but some of the modern critics believe that the work cannot be considered a proper biography.



On 16 May 1763, Johnson met 22-year-old Boswell, the man who would later become Johnson's first major biographer, for the first time in the book shop of Johnson's friend, Tom Davies.[1] They quickly became friends, although Boswell would return to his home in Scotland or travel abroad for months at a time.[1] During his life, Boswell kept a series of journals that detailed the various moments that he felt were important.[1] This journal, when published in the 20th century, filled eighteen volumes, and it was from this large collection of detailed notes that Boswell would base his works on Johnson's life.[1] Johnson, in commenting on Boswell's excessive note taking playfully wrote to Hester Thrale, "One would think the man had been hired to spy upon me".[2]

On 6 August 1773, eleven years after first meeting Boswell, Johnson set out to visit his friend in Scotland, in order to begin "a journey to the western islands of Scotland", as Johnson's 1775 account of their travels would put it.[3] Boswell's account, The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (1786), was a preliminary attempt at a biography before his Life of Johnson.[4] With the success of that work, Boswell started working on the "vast treasure of his conversations at different times" that he recorded in his journals.[5] His goal was to recreate Johnson's "life in Scenes".[5] However, Boswell suffered the problem of having not met Johnson until Johnson was 53, and this created an imbalance on what portions of Johnson's life were actually discussed.[6] Furthermore, as literary critic Donald Greene has pointed out, Boswell's works only describe 250 days that Boswell could have actually been present with Johnson, the rest of the information having to come from either Johnson himself or from secondary sources recounting various incidents.[7]

Before Boswell could publish his biography of Johnson, there were many other friends of Johnson's that published or in the middle of publishing their own biographies or collections or anecdotes on Johnson: John Hawkins, Thrale, Frances Burney, Anna Seward, Elizabeth Montagu, Hannah More, and Horace Walpole among many.[8] The last edition Boswell worked on was the third, published in 1799.[9]


Samuel Johnson in his later years

There are many biographies and biographers of Samuel Johnson, but James Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson is the one best known to the general reader.[10] Yet opinion among 20th-century Johnson scholars such as Edmund Wilson and Donald Greene is that Boswell's Life "can hardly be termed a biography at all", being merely "a collection of those entries in Boswell's diaries dealing with the occasions during the last twenty-two years of Johnson's life on which they met ... strung together with only a perfunctory effort to fill the gaps".[10] Furthermore, Greene claims that the work "began with a well-organized press campaign, by Boswell and his friends, of puffing and of denigration of his rivals; and was given a boost by one of Macaulay's most memorable pieces of journalistic claptrap".[10] Instead of being called a "biography", Greene suggests that the work should be called an "Ana", a sort of table talk.[11]

The cause for concern is that Boswell's original Life "corrects" many of Johnson's quotations, censors many of the more vulgar comments, and largely ignores Johnson's early years.[12] In particular, Boswell creates a somewhat mythic version of Johnson, as William Dowling puts it:

In a sense, the Life's portrayal of Johnson as a moral hero begins in myth... As the biographical story unfolds, of course, this image dissolves and there emerges the figure of an infinitely more complex and heroic Johnson whose moral wisdom is won through a constant struggle with despair, whose moral sanity is balanced by personal eccentricities too visible to be ignored, and whose moral penetration derives from his own sense of tragic self-deception. Yet the image never dissolves completely, for in the end we realize there has been an essential truth in the myth all along, that the idealized and disembodied image of Johnson existing in the mind of his public... In this way the myth serves to expand and authenticate the more complex image of Johnson".[13]

Modern biographers have since corrected Boswell's errors.[14] This is not to say that Boswell's work is wrong or of no use: scholars such as Walter Jackson Bate appreciate the "detail" and the "treasury of conversation" that it contains.[15] All of Johnson's biographers, according to Bate, have to go through the same "igloo" of material that Boswell had to deal with: limited information from Johnson's first forty years and an extreme amount for those after.[15] Simply put, "Johnson's life continues to hold attention" and "every scrap of evidence relating to Johnson's life has continued to be examined and many more details have been added" because "it is so close to general human experience in a wide variety of ways".[16]

Critical response

After the work was first published, Boswell received criticism from Thomas Babington Macaulay, 1st Baron Macaulay and Lockhart over what they perceived was the harsh way the Life reveals Johnson's and others' personal lives.[17] Not everyone agreed and Edmund Burke told King George III that the work entertained him more than any other.[18] Robert Anderson, in his Works of the British Poets (1795), wrote: "With some venial exceptions on the score of egotism and indiscriminate admiration, his work exhibits the most copious, interesting, and finished picture of the life and opinions of an eminent man, that was ever executed; and is justly esteemed one of the most instructive and entertaining books in the English language."[19] A reviewer claimed of Croker's edition of Boswell: "We know him [Johnson], not as he was known to men of his own generation, but as he was known to men whose father he might have been".[20] A century later, Thomas Carlyle described the work as "the best possible resemblance of a Reality; like the very image thereof in a clear mirror".[21]

More recent critics have been mostly positive. Frederick Pottle suggests that "the crowning achievement of an artist who for more than twenty five years had been deliberately disciplining himself for such a task."[22] W. K. Wimsatt argues, "the correct response to Boswell is to value the man through the artist, the artist in the man".[23] Leopold Damrosch claims that the work is of a type that "do not lend themselves very easily to the usual categories by which the critic explains and justifies his admiration".[24] Walter Jackson Bate emphasized the uniqueness of the work when he says "nothing comparable to it had existed. Nor has anything comparable been written since, because that special union of talents, opportunities, and subject matter has never been duplicated."[5]

However, many critics disagree with the positive assessment of the work as a biography; Leopold Damrosch explains the potential problems with Boswell's Life: "[T]he usual claim that it is the world’s greatest biography seems to me seriously misleading. In the first place, it has real defects of organization and structure; in the second place (and more importantly) it leaves much to be desired as the comprehensive interpretation of a life."[25] Brady Frank describes the mixed feelings that critics have in regards to The Life of Samuel Johnson when he says, "Though Boswell is the world’s greatest, critics have consistently patronized Boswell the man."[26] Although Donald Greene thought that Boswell's The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides is a "splendid performance", he felt that the Life was inadequate and Johnson's later years deserved a more accurate biography.[11]


  1. ^ a b c d Bate 1977, p. 360
  2. ^ Johnson 1952 "Johnson’s letter to Mrs Thrale 11 June 1775" p. 42
  3. ^ Bate 1977, p. 463
  4. ^ Bate 1977, p. 468
  5. ^ a b c Bate 1977, p. 364
  6. ^ Damrosch 1973 p. 494
  7. ^ Greene 1979 p. 129
  8. ^ Brady 1972 p. 548
  9. ^ Boswell 1986, p. 17
  10. ^ a b c Boswell 1986, p. 7
  11. ^ a b Greene 1979 p. 130
  12. ^ Boswell 1986, p. 25
  13. ^ Dowling 1980 pp. 478-479
  14. ^ Boswell 1986, p. 26
  15. ^ a b Bate 1977, p. xx
  16. ^ Bate 1977, p. 3
  17. ^ Brady 1972 p. 547
  18. ^ Burke "Boswell to Burke 16 July 1791" pp. 297-298
  19. ^ Anderson 1795 p. 780
  20. ^ Eidenburgh Review September 1831.
  21. ^ Carlyle 1869 p. 39
  22. ^ Pottle 1929 p. xxi
  23. ^ Wimsatt 1965 p. 183
  24. ^ Damrosch 1973 p. 486
  25. ^ Damrosch 1973 pp. 493–494
  26. ^ Brady 1972 p. 545


  • Anderson, Robert ed. Works of the British Poets. Vol XI London, 1795. XI
  • Bate, Walter Jackson (1977), Samuel Johnson, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, ISBN 0151792607  .
  • Boswell, James (1986), Hibbert, Christopher, ed., The Life of Samuel Johnson, New York: Penguin Classics, ISBN 0140431160  .
  • Brady, Frank. "Boswell's Self-Presentation and His Critics." Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 12, No. 3, (Summer, 1972), pp. 545-555
  • Burke, Edmund. Correspondence of Edmund Burke, Vol. VI ed. Alfred Cobban and R. A. Smith. Chicago, 1958-1968.
  • Carlyle, Thomas. "Boswell's Life of Johnson", in Critical and Miscellaneous Essays Vol. IV, ed. Thomas Carlyle. London, 1869.
  • Damrosch, Leopold. "The Life of Johnson: An Anti-Theory." Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 6, No. 4, (Summer, 1973), pp. 486-505
  • Dowling, William. "Biographer, Hero, and Audience in Boswell’s Life of Johnson." Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 Vol. 20, No. 3 (Summer, 1980), pp. 475-491
  • Greene, Donald. "Do We Need a Biography of Johnson’s "Boswell" Years?" Modern Language Studies, Vol. 9, No. 3, (Autumn 1979), pp. 128-136
  • Johnson, Samuel. Letters of Samuel Johnson Vol II, ed. R. W. Chapman. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952.
  • Lustig, Irma S. "Boswell’s Literary Criticism in the Life of Johnson" Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 Vol 6, No 3 (Summer 1966) pp. 529-541
  • Pottle, Frederick. The Literary Career of James Boswell, Esquire. Oxford, 1929.
  • Wimsatt, W. K. "The Fact Imagined: James Boswell, in Hateful Contraries, ed. William K Wimsatt. Lexington, Kentucky: University of Kentucky Press, 1965

Further reading

  • Sisman, Adam (2001). Boswell's Presumptuous Task: The Making of the Life of Dr. Johnson. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. ISBN 0374115613.  

External links



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