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James Boswell, Biographer and Diarist, Fall 2016 @ Archives & Special Collections: Case IX: Life of Johnson

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 "Life of Johnson"]

"Life of Johnson"

The title page of the first edition of "Life of Johnson."
The title page of Life of Johnson as included in the first edition in 1791.

Life of Johnson is both peculiar and remarkable, as far as the genre of biography is concerned. The book has dealt with significant contemporary criticism as to its methodology. The biography encompasses the entirety of Johnson's life. And even though Boswell did not meet Johnson until the latter was 54, Boswell conveyed Johnson's "life-scenes" as if he had been present, mixing fact and fantasy. Boswell is also known to have edited some of Johnson's quotes and omitted any anecdotes that would have reflected poorly on his character. 

It is widely agreed among contemporary critics, that The Life of Johnson revolutionized the genre of biography. Its unique stylization leads some to call it a series of diary entries or a table-talk more readily than they do a biography. This, combined with Boswell's clear fondness for and familiarity with the subject of the book, resulted in a final product that showed bias, but was more personal and joyous than other biographies. This led to immediate critical and popular success, easily becoming Boswell's most famous work and cementing him as a central figure in the development of modern literary practice. 

An engraving of Johnson, Boswell, and Oliver Goldsmith.
Painted by Eyre Crowe (1824- 1910); engraved by Geo E. Perine (1837-85)
A Scene at the Mitre, 1880
Mixed method, mezzotint on chine collé
​56.5 x 65.5 cm
The British Museum

An engraving of Boswell, Johnson, and writer Oliver Goldsmith, who entered Johnson's circle of acquaintances through joining "The Club," a dining club first formed by artist Joshua Reynolds. A membership of 12 was initially deemed optimal to maintain both exclusivity and quality of conversation, but there grew to be as many as 21 members at a time, including James Boswell, Wealth of Nations author Adam Smith, and Prime Minister Robert Cecil. Winston Churchill sought membership in the 20th century, but was declined on account of his controversiality.

A quote from 'Life of Johnson' in which Boswell is referring to Johnson, reading: 'He had no settled plan of life, nor looked forward at all, but merely lived from day to day. Yet he read a great deal in a desultory manner, without any scheme of study, as chance threw books in his way, and inclination directed him through them.'

A display case featuring the booksand images listed on this page.
A v
iew of Case IX as displayed for the exhibition. 

A quote from James Boswell in 'Life of Johnson,' reading 'We cannot tell the precise moment when friendship is formed. As in filling a vessel drop by drop, there is at last a drop which makes it run over; so in a series of kindnesses there is at last one which makes the heart run over.'

Included Works

A painting of Johnson looking intently at a book.
Joshua Reynolds, (1723-1792)
Portrait of Samuel Johnson (1775)
Unknown medium, dimensions, and location

A portrait of Johnson.
Joshua Reynolds (1723-92)
Portrait of Samuel Johnson, 1772
Oil on canvas
75.6 x 62.2 cm
Tate Gallery

Though he was regarded for his intelligence and humor, Johnson's life was hardly easy. His family faced economic strain throughout his childhood, his formal education becoming rather inconsistent due to lack of funding. Money prevented him from acquiring a degree from Oxford, where he had intensely studied for 13 months, which in turn made it difficult to acquire teaching positions. This, biographer Robert DeMaria believes, only accentuated his eventual arrival at a career in writing. Johnson's visible Tourette's Syndrome made it difficult to perform the duties of public occupations when he was able to get them, leading him to "the invisible occupation of authorship."