The Journals of James Boswell: 1762-1795 - The Life and Times of a Remarkable Man and His Friends
The Journals of James Boswell: 1762-1795
James Boswell (1740-1795) was a Scottish biographer, diarist, and lawyer, who is best known for his biography of his friend and older contemporary, the English writer Samuel Johnson. But Boswell was also a prolific and candid chronicler of his own life, recording his experiences, thoughts, feelings, and encounters in a series of journals that spanned more than three decades. These journals, which were mostly unpublished during his lifetime, offer a fascinating insight into the social, cultural, and intellectual history of the 18th century, as well as the personal and professional development of one of its most remarkable figures.
The Journals of James Boswell: 1762-1795
Who was James Boswell?
Boswell was born in Edinburgh on October 29, 1740 (N.S.), as the eldest son of a judge, Alexander Boswell, Lord Auchinleck. He was educated at home by tutors and at the universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow. He had a restless and adventurous spirit, and a strong desire to pursue a literary career. He also had a keen interest in politics, religion, philosophy, and human nature. He was attracted to the cosmopolitan culture of London, where he hoped to make a name for himself as a writer and a gentleman.
What are his journals?
Boswell began keeping a journal in 1762, when he was 22 years old. He continued to do so until his death in 1795, with some gaps and interruptions. He wrote in English, French, Latin, Italian, and sometimes Scots. He used various notebooks, loose sheets, letters, and memoranda to record his daily activities, observations, opinions, emotions, dreams, fantasies, and confessions. He also copied or summarized his conversations with notable people he met or corresponded with. He intended some of his journals to be published as travel accounts or memoirs, but most of them were meant for his own use or for a select circle of friends. He often revised or rewrote his entries to improve their style or accuracy.
Why are they important?
Boswell's journals are important for several reasons. First, they provide a rich and detailed portrait of Boswell himself: his personality, character, talents, flaws, passions, ambitions, achievements, failures, joys, sorrows, hopes, fears, loves, hates, virtues, vices. They reveal his strengths and weaknesses as a writer, a thinker, a friend, a husband, a father, a citizen, a Christian, a human being. They show his growth and change over time, as well as his struggles and contradictions.
Second, they offer a vivid and comprehensive picture of the 18th century world that Boswell lived in and explored. They cover a wide range of topics and themes, such as literature, art, science, philosophy, religion, politics, law, society, culture, manners, morals, fashion, entertainment, travel, war, revolution, etc. They depict the places he visited or lived in, such as Scotland, England, France, Switzerland, Italy, Corsica, Germany, Holland, etc. They introduce the people he encountered or befriended, such as Samuel Johnson, David Hume, Adam Smith, Voltaire, Rousseau, Paoli, Wilkes, Burke, Reynolds, Garrick, etc.
Third, they demonstrate the art and craft of biography and autobiography, as Boswell experimented with different forms and methods of writing about himself and others. They show how he collected, selected, organized, interpreted, and presented his materials, and how he balanced fact and fiction, objectivity and subjectivity, analysis and narration, description and dialogue, etc. They also reveal his influences and sources, his aims and purposes, his challenges and difficulties, his successes and failures, as a biographer and a diarist.
The Grand Tour of Europe
Boswell's travels in France, Switzerland and Italy
In 1763, Boswell embarked on a grand tour of Europe, a traditional rite of passage for young aristocrats and gentlemen. He spent two years traveling through France, Switzerland, and Italy, accompanied by various tutors, friends, or guides. He visited famous cities, such as Paris, Geneva, Turin, Florence, Rome, Naples, etc., where he admired the monuments, museums, churches, palaces, gardens, etc. He also explored the countryside, the mountains, the lakes, the rivers, the islands, etc., where he enjoyed the scenery, the climate, the flora, the fauna, etc. He learned about the history, geography, customs, laws, languages, arts, sciences, religions, politics, etc., of each region or country. He met with local nobles, scholars, artists, priests, politicians, etc., and participated in their social events or ceremonies. He also indulged in various pleasures and amusements: eating drinking gambling dancing theatre opera music poetry etc. He also had several romantic or sexual affairs with women of different ranks or nationalities.
His encounter with Voltaire and Rousseau
Two of the most remarkable people that Boswell met during his grand tour were the French philosophers Voltaire and Rousseau. They were both leading figures of the Enlightenment , a movement that promoted reason , freedom , progress , and tolerance in the 18th century. They were also both controversial , influential , and popular writers , who challenged the established authorities , traditions , and beliefs of their time.
Boswell visited Voltaire at his residence in Ferney , near Geneva , in 1764. He was impressed by Voltaire's wit , intelligence , eloquence , and fame , but also disappointed by his cynicism , sarcasm , irreligion , and vanity. He had several conversations with him on various topics , such as literature , history , politics , religion , etc. He also witnessed Voltaire's theatrical performances , which he found amusing but blasphemous.
Boswell met Rousseau at his retreat in Môtiers , in Switzerland , in 1764. He was fascinated by Rousseau's originality , sincerity , passion , and genius , but also puzzled by his paradoxes , contradictions , eccentricities , and misfortunes. He had a long and intimate dialogue with him on his life , works , opinions , feelings , etc. He also befriended Rousseau's companion Thérèse Le Vasseur , whom he found simple but charming.
His fascination with Corsica and Paoli
One of the most memorable episodes of Boswell's grand tour was his visit to Corsica in 1765. Corsica was an island in the Mediterranean Sea that belonged to Genoa but was invaded by France in 1764. The Corsicans resisted the French occupation under the leadership of Pasquale Paoli (1725-1807), a general and a patriot who aimed to establish an independent and democratic republic.
Boswell was attracted by the cause of Corsican freedom and by the character of Paoli. He sailed from Livorno to Corsica in October 1765. He spent several weeks traveling around the island with Paoli or his officers. He observed the natural beauty , the military operations , the political institutions , the social conditions , the cultural traditions , etc. of Corsica. He interviewed Paoli extensively on his personal history , his political views , his military strategies , his future plans , etc. He also witnessed Paoli's popularity , authority , generosity , courage , and wisdom.
Boswell wrote a book about his Corsican experience , titled An Account of Corsica , The Journal of a Tour to That Island ; and Memoirs of Pascal Paoli. It was published in 1768 and became a bestseller in Britain and Europe. It praised Paoli and the Corsicans as models of liberty and virtue , and inspired sympathy and support for their cause. It also established Boswell's reputation as a writer and a traveler.
The Friendship with Samuel Johnson
How Boswell met Johnson in London
Boswell's most famous and lasting friendship was with Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) , the eminent English writer , critic , lexicographer , and moralist. Boswell had admired Johnson's works since his youth , and had a strong desire to meet him in person. He had several opportunities to do so during his visits to London , but missed them due to his shyness or bad luck.
He finally succeeded on May 16 , 1763 , when he was introduced to Johnson by a mutual friend , the painter and writer James Reynolds , at the bookshop of Tom Davies , a former actor turned bookseller. Boswell was 22 years old and Johnson was 53. Despite the age difference and the initial awkwardness , they soon found that they had much in common: a love of literature , conversation , humor , and humanity. They also enjoyed each other's differences: Boswell was lively , curious , adventurous , and sociable ; Johnson was grave , learned , conservative , and melancholic.
They agreed to meet again the next day , and thus began a friendship that lasted for more than 20 years , until Johnson's death in 1784. Boswell became Johnson's devoted disciple , companion , biographer , and confidant. He visited him frequently at his home or his club , accompanied him on his travels or his visits to friends or patrons , consulted him on his personal or professional matters , sought his advice or approval on his writings or actions , defended him from his critics or enemies , admired his genius or wisdom , praised his virtues or achievements , comforted him in his illnesses or sorrows , and recorded his words or deeds.
Their journey to the Hebrides
One of the most memorable events of Boswell and Johnson's friendship was their journey to the Hebrides , a group of islands off the west coast of Scotland. Boswell had long wished to visit his ancestral lands in the north of Scotland , and to show them to Johnson. Johnson had a curiosity about the remote and primitive regions of Britain , and a desire to see the famous ruins of Iona and Staffa.
They set off from Edinburgh on August 18, 1773, accompanied by Boswell's servant Joseph and Johnson's servant Francis Barber. They traveled by coach, boat, horseback, or on foot, through various towns, villages, castles, estates, mountains, valleys, lochs, etc. They met with local lairds, clergymen, scholars, poets, farmers, fishermen, etc., and observed their customs, manners, languages, religions, etc. They also encountered various difficulties, dangers, discomforts, and inconveniences, such as bad roads, bad weather, bad food, bad accommodation, bad company, etc.
They returned to Edinburgh on November 22, 1773, after visiting more than 20 islands and covering more than 1000 miles. They both wrote accounts of their journey: Johnson published A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland in 1775, and Boswell published The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides in 1785. Both books were well received by the public and the critics, and became classics of travel literature.
Their conversations and debates
The most valuable and entertaining part of Boswell and Johnson's friendship was their conversations and debates on various subjects. Boswell had a remarkable memory and a keen ear for dialogue. He recorded many of Johnson's sayings and opinions in his journals, letters, or notebooks. He also preserved the context and the atmosphere of their discussions: the time, the place, the occasion, the company, the mood, the tone, the gesture, etc.
Boswell and Johnson talked about everything: literature, history, philosophy, religion, politics, law, society, culture, morals, etc. They also discussed their personal or professional affairs: their families, friends, enemies, patrons, readers, critics, etc. They sometimes agreed and sometimes disagreed on their views or judgments. They often argued or contradicted each other for the sake of truth or amusement. They challenged or provoked each other with questions, objections, examples, anecdotes, jokes, etc.
Their conversations and debates were lively, informative, witty, wise, and sometimes controversial. They displayed their knowledge, intelligence, imagination, humor, and humanity. They also revealed their personalities, characters, attitudes, and feelings. They were a source of instruction, delight, and his title of Lord Auchinleck. He also wrote essays, reviews, poems, and pamphlets on various subjects. He was involved in several literary projects: he edited the works of the poet James Thomson, he translated the memoirs of the Corsican general Paoli, he collaborated with Johnson on a revised edition of his Dictionary of the English Language, and he planned to write a history of Britain. He also continued to work on his magnum opus: the Life of Johnson.
His struggles with alcoholism and depression
Boswell's later years were marked by personal and professional difficulties. He suffered from alcoholism and depression, which affected his health, his work, his reputation, and his relationships. He often drank to excess, especially when he was in London or away from his family. He also indulged in sexual escapades with prostitutes or other women, exposing himself to venereal diseases and scandals. He experienced frequent bouts of melancholy, anxiety, guilt, and hypochondria. He sometimes contemplated suicide or madness.
Boswell sought relief from various sources: religion, medicine, friendship, travel, etc. He was a devout Anglican, but he also explored other forms of Christianity and other religions. He consulted many doctors and tried various remedies or cures for his physical or mental ailments. He maintained a close correspondence with his friends and mentors, especially Johnson and Reynolds. He also traveled to different places in Britain or abroad, such as Ireland, Wales, Holland, etc.
His death and legacy
Boswell's life was overshadowed by the death of Johnson in 1784. He felt a deep grief and a sense of loss. He also felt a great responsibility to complete and publish his biography of Johnson. He devoted most of his time and energy to this task for the next seven years. He collected and arranged a vast amount of materials: his own journals and notes, Johnson's letters and papers, testimonies and anecdotes from Johnson's friends and acquaintances, etc. He also wrote an introduction and a commentary to each chapter. He faced many challenges and obstacles: his own ill health and depression, his financial difficulties and debts, his legal troubles and lawsuits, his family problems and conflicts, his editorial disputes and criticisms, etc.
He finally finished his work in 1791. He published it in two volumes under the title The Life of Samuel Johnson , LL.D . It was an immediate success: it sold well , it received favorable reviews , it attracted public attention , it earned praise from literary figures , etc . It was also a lasting achievement : it established Boswell's fame as a biographer , it influenced the development of biography as a genre , it enriched the knowledge of Johnson and his times , it delighted generations of readers with its style , its content , its humor , its wisdom , etc .
Boswell did not live long to enjoy his triumph . He died on May 19 , 1795 , at the age of 54 , in London . He was buried at Auchinleck . His wife had died in 1789 , and four of his children died before him . His surviving son , Sir Alexander Boswell , inherited his estate and papers . He published some of Boswell's works , such as The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (1785) , but he also suppressed or destroyed some of his journals or letters , fearing that they would damage Boswell's reputation or offend Johnson's admirers . Boswell's papers were dispersed or hidden for many years , until they were rediscovered or recovered by various scholars or collectors in the 19th and 20th centuries . They were edited and published in several editions , revealing Boswell's extraordinary talent as a diarist as well as a biographer . They also showed Boswell's complex and fascinating personality : his curiosity , enthusiasm , ambition , generosity , honesty , courage , etc .; as well as his flaws : his vanity , insecurity , impulsiveness , irresponsibility , weakness , etc .
James Boswell was one of the most remarkable figures of the 18th century . He was a lawyer , a writer , a traveler , a patriot , a friend , a husband , a father , etc . He was also one of the world's greatest biographers and diarists. He left behind a rich and varied legacy of writings that illuminate his own life and times, as well as the lives and times of others. He was a man of many talents and many faults, of many passions and many contradictions. He was a man who loved life and lived it fully.
Here are some frequently asked questions about James Boswell and his journals:
Q: How many journals did Boswell write and how many have survived? A: Boswell wrote about 70 journals from 1762 to 1795, covering more than 8,000 pages. About 50 of them have survived, either in their original form or in copies made by Boswell or his son. The rest are either lost or destroyed.
Q: How did Boswell's journals become public? A: Boswell's journals were mostly unpublished during his lifetime, except for some excerpts that he used for his books or articles. After his death, his son Sir Alexander Boswell inherited his papers and published some of them, but also suppressed or burned some of the more scandalous or controversial ones. The papers were then dispersed or hidden for many years, until they were rediscovered or recovered by various scholars or collectors in the 19th and 20th centuries. They were edited and published in several editions, most notably by George Birkbeck Hill (1887-1893), Frederick A. Pottle (1929-1989), and Frank Brady and W.K. Wimsatt (1989-2019).
Q: What are the main themes or topics of Boswell's journals? A: Boswell's journals cover a wide range of themes or topics, such as literature, history, philosophy, religion, politics, law, society, culture, morals, etc. They also record his personal experiences, thoughts, feelings, dreams, fantasies, and confessions. They reveal his personality, character, talents, flaws, passions, ambitions, achievements, failures, joys, sorrows, hopes, fears, loves, hates, virtues, vices, etc.
Q: What are the main sources or influences of Boswell's journals? A: Boswell's journals were influenced by various sources or models, such as classical authors (Plutarch , Cicero , Horace , etc.), French memoirists (Saint-Simon , Montaigne , etc.), English essayists (Addison , Steele , etc.), Scottish philosophers (Hume , Smith , etc.), and contemporary writers (Johnson , Reynolds , etc.). They also reflect his own originality , creativity , and style.
Q: What are the main values or contributions of Boswell's journals? A: Boswell's journals are valuable and influential for several reasons. First , they provide a rich and detailed portrait of Boswell himself : one of the most remarkable figures of the 18th century . Second , they offer a vivid and comprehensive picture of the 18th century world that Boswell lived in and explored : one of the most fascinating periods of history . Third , they demonstrate the art and craft of biography and autobiography : one of the most important genres of literature . Fourth , they delight and instruct generations of readers with their style , content , humor , wisdom , etc.: one of the most enjoyable works of literature.