Today in Literary History – October 29, 1740 – James Boswell is born

James Boswell, the unflagging diarist and biographer, was born on October 29, 1740, in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Boswell kept a journal of his various travels and his friendship with the great lexicographer and man of letters Samuel Johnson. In 1791 Boswell published his Life of Samuel Johnson, based in large part on his journals and quoting Johnson’s private conversations.

Boswell’s biography of Johnson turned Boswell into a noun meaning a companion who writes down everything his subject says, as in he’s so-and-so’s Boswell.


Boswell’s literary reputation grew with the discovery in the 1920s of his cache of diaries and journals. They were published in a dozen volumes covering life from his early twenties until his death in 1795 at the age of 54.

I’ve read the one volume “selected” version of the journals and it is great fun. Through Johnson Boswell got to meet a lot of famous and well connected people and on his travels he came across ordinary people. He records his encounters with both sorts equally vividly.

Boswell was 22 when he first met Johnson. His Life of Samuel Johnson is often cited as the first real biography written in English, a warts and all portrait rather than hagiography. The journals too are very candid, depicting Boswell’s marital troubles, visits to prostitutes, the drudgery of his law practice and his various insecurities and concerns.

It is a cliche to say that an author’s writing makes him immortal but in Boswell’s case he really does live on in his Journals just as Johnson lives on in Boswell’s biography.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s