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James Boswell, Biographer and Diarist, Fall 2016 @ Archives & Special Collections: Case IV: Germany and Switzerland

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.

[A banner reading: "Germany and Switzerland"]

Germany and Switzerland

A rendering of Jean-Jacques Rousseau in early adulthood.
Maurice Quentin de La Tour (1704-1788)
Portrait of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 18th century
Pastel on paper
45 × 35.5 cm
Musée Antoine-Lécuyer


In late 1764, Boswell traveled to the small mountain village of Môtiers, where the philosopher and writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau was living in seclusion. After writing several letters of introduction, Boswell was able to meet and converse with Rousseau six times over a five day period. Boswell recorded these December meetings at length in his diary. At the end of that month he traveled to Ferney, France, near the Swiss border, to meet Voltaire. Boswell engaged Voltaire in a few matters of philosophy, such as Voltaire's conception of God and immortality of the soul, a conversation Boswell recorded in a long letter to his childhood friend, William Johnson Temple.

A physical map of Holland charting Boswell's tour.

The map of Switzerland included in Case IV, with a depiction Boswell's tour route and the cities he stopped in.

[A quote from Peter Martin's "Let me be Boswell: Touring Germany and Switzerland," reading as follows: "By touring the German courts and venturing into Switzerland, Boswell hoped to meet great men and thinkers who would help him realize his own native 'genius,' test his own embryonic ideas about religion and literature, rouse his stifled imagination, energize his literary instincts."

A display case featuring maps of Germany and Holland and the books, supplementary texts, and images featured on this page.
A view of Case IV as displayed for the exhibition. 

An excerpt from a note that James Boswell sent to Rousseau when asking for an audience, reading as follows: "Sixteen months ago I left Great Britain a completely insular being, knowing hardly a word of French. I have been in Holland and Germany, but not yet in France. You will therefore excuse my handling of the language. I am travelling with a genuine desire to improve myself. I come here in the hope of seeing you."

Included Works

An oil painting of Voltaire
Jacques Augustin Catherine Pajou (1766-1828)
Voltaire Reading 'The Literary Year of Fréron,' 1811
Oil on canvas
Dimensions unknown
Comedie Francaise

In addition to the above publications and the map of Switzerland, the case includes a map of Germany outlining Boswell's tour route, scans of letters exchanged between Rousseau and Boswell, and a scan of a letter that Voltaire wrote to Boswell.