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James Boswell, Biographer and Diarist, Fall 2016 @ Archives & Special Collections: Case I: Who is James Boswell?

The Special Collections Department at the University of Pittsburgh presents an exhibition of the life of James Boswell, the writer who revolutionized the genre of biography and the broader literary tradition.


The Isham Editions

The process of persuading Boswell's descendants to part with the papers and then assembling them into one collection was the achievement of the American collector Ralph W. Isham. Colonel Isham's mission, costly and often frustrating, would take the better part of two decades to complete. In 1949 the Boswell collection was acquired by Yale University.  

Isham published Boswell's papers, which were then thought to be the entire cache, as The Private Papers of James Boswell from Malahide Castle. The multi-volume collection was designed by Bruce Rogers and printed by William Edwin Rudge in 1928-1936 and sold by subscription, the cost being $50.00 per book. The set ultimately consisted of 18 volumes, an index, the Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides and a catalogue. The volumes were issued in slipcases and limited to 570 numbered sets. The facsimiles were published in quarto and folio formats because of Colonel Isham’s insistence that the manuscripts be reproduced their in actual size and not in reduced form. Kenneth Auchincloss refers to The Papers as “the most magnificent American Press Books of this century”. It is estimated that 300 sets survive, of which 207 are found in public and university libraries, like the complete set of the Smith-Boswell Collection.

An oil painting of Boswell, his wife, and their three children.
Henry Singleton (1766-1839)
James Boswell and his Family, 1786
Oil on Canvas
40.98 x 49.25 in
Scottish National Gallery

Boswell with his wife and three of their children, likely Veronica (center), James (bottom left), and Elizabeth (right).

A large mansionCopyright Steve Brown, retrieved via Flickr. 

Pictured above is the Auchinleck House, Boswell's family estate, located in Ayrshire, Scotland. The estate includes the recently-restored main house, several side wings, a grotto, and several pavilions.

A quote from James Boswell, reading as follows: "I was born with a melancholy temperament... yet I do not regret that I am melancholy. It is the temperament of tender hearts, of noble souls."]

[A display case featuring a print of the exhibit flyer and the books, supplementary texts, and images listed on this page.
A view of Case I as displayed for the exhibition. 

A quote from Brian D. Osborne's "James Boswell: Biographer, Diarist, and Travel Writer," reading as follows: "Boswell's reputation, until this century, was as Johnson's biographer and he is often dismissed as being simple the Doctor's sycophantic disciple... the modern publication of Boswell's diaries, remarkable for their scope, self-awareness and frankness, revealed a fascinatingly complex character and placed Boswell among the great diarists and auto-biographers."

Included Works

An oil painting of James Boswell at age 25.
George Willison (1741-1797)
James Boswell, 1740-1795. Diarist and Biographer of Mr. Samuel Johnson, 1965
Oil on Canvas
53.23 x 37.99 in
Scottish National Gallery

In addition to the above publications, Case I includes the portrait of Boswell painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1785, a scan of an etching of Malahide Castle in Dublin, and four supplementary texts with contextual details.