In 1773 Boswell became a member of Johnson's club, to which Burke, Garrick, Reynolds, Goldsmith, and other 18th-century luminaries also belonged. Later that year he and Johnson toured Scotland, a visit Boswell described in The Journal of a Tour of the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (1785; complete edition from manuscript, 1936). His great work, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D., appeared in 1791. In it Boswell recorded Johnson's conversation minutely, but with a fine sense of critical judgment. So skillful was his work that Johnson is perhaps better remembered today for his sayings in the biography than for his own works. The curious combination of Boswell's own character (he was vainglorious, a heavy drinker, and a libertine) and his genius at biography have intrigued later critics, many of whom conclude that he is the greatest biographer in Western literature. Misconduct led to poverty and ill health in his final years.
In the 20th cent. great masses of Boswell manuscripts—journals, letters, and other papers—were discovered, most of them at Malahide Castle, Ireland. Lt. Col. Ralph H. Isham purchased the first in 1927 and sold these and later finds to Yale Univ. Publication of these "Yale Editions of the Private Papers," under the editorship of Frederick A. Pottle and others, reached many volumes. The recent findings, most particularly his voluminous journals, have enhanced Boswell's literary reputation. Always lively and, at times, even exciting, the journals portray Boswell's daily life in extraordinary detail. They are written in an easy, colloquial style, which resembles the style of many 20th-century authors.
See F. A. Pottle, James Boswell: The Earlier Years, 1740-1769 (2d ed. 1984), F. Brady, James Boswell: The Later Years, 1769-95 (1984), and P. Martin, A Life of James Boswell (2000); studies by J. L. Clifford (1970), D. L. Passler (1971), H. Pearson (1958, repr. 1972), W. R. Siebenschuh (1972), and A. Sisman (2001).
Boswell, detail of an oil painting from the studio of Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1786; in the National elipsis
Learn more about Boswell, James with a free trial on Britannica.com.
In other uses: