A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature/Boswell, James

Boswell, James (1740-1795).—Biographer, s. of Alexander B. of Auchinleck, Ayrshire, one of the judges of the Supreme Courts of Scotland, was ed. at the High School and Univ. of Edin., and practised as an advocate. He travelled much on the Continent and visited Corsica, where he became acquainted with the patriot General Paoli. Fortunately for posterity he was in 1763 introduced to Dr. Johnson, and formed an acquaintance with him which soon ripened into friendship, and had as its ultimate fruit the immortal Life. He was also the author of several works of more or less interest, including an Account of Corsica (1768), and Journal of Tour to the Hebrides (in the company of Johnson) (1786). Vain and foolish in an exceptional degree, and by no means free from more serious faults, B. has yet produced the greatest biography in the language. The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. appeared in 1791, and at once commanded an admiration which has suffered no diminution since. But by this time a cloud had fallen upon the author. He had lost his excellent wife, his health had given way, the intemperance to which he had always been subject had mastered him, and he d. four years after the appearance of his great work. B. was called to the English as well as to the Scottish Bar, but his various foibles prevented his reaching any great success, and he had also vainly endeavoured to enter on a political career. The question has often been raised how a man with the characteristics of B. could have produced so unique a work, and has been discussed at length by Macaulay and by Carlyle, the former paradoxically arguing that his supreme folly and meanness themselves formed his greatest qualifications; the latter, with far deeper insight, that beneath these there lay the possession of an eye to discern excellence and a heart to appreciate it, intense powers of accurate observation and a considerable dramatic faculty. His letters to William Temple were discovered at Boulogne, and pub. 1857.