James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson

Someone said that the three greatest characters in the English language are Falstaff, Mr. Pickwick, and Samuel Johnson. And while James Boswell, a reluctant lawyer, did not create Johnson, he did, with The Life of Samuel Johnson, write the greatest biography in English literature. Nothing even remotely comparable to it was written before 1791, and certainly nothing since.

When they met in London, Boswell, a Scot, was only 22 years old; Johnson, from Litchfield, England, was 53. The book grew out of a close relationship between the two exceptional men and a special union of their talents. Johnson, the son of a bookseller, was a genius, a voracious reader, a Classics scholar, a gifted writer, and a conversationalist with an incredible command of the language. Boswell’s illumination of him still glows 225 years later because of Boswell’s skill as a writer, his dramatic sense, his ability to draw people into conversation, his astonishing memory, and his capacity for admiration. He, too, was a genius. The pages of the biography resonate not only with the wisdom and wit of Johnson and Boswell, but also of Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, Oliver Goldsmith, Edward Gibbon, Joshua Reynolds, David Garrick, Fanny Burney, and Hester Thrale Piozzi.

Boswell delighted in provoking Johnson with idle and curious comments anticipating the response he knew he would receive. There are numerous instances of his doing this in The Life. Here are a couple:

Boswell: “Some time I have been of a humor of wishing to retire to a desert.”

Johnson: “Sir, you have desert enough in Scotland.”

Boswell: “There is one impudent fellow from Scotland who maintains that there is no distinction between virtue and vice.”

Johnson: “Why, sir, if your fellow does not think as he speaks, he is lying. But if he really does think that there is no distinction between virtue and vice, then Sir, when he leaves our house, let us count our spoons!”

Acknowledging and giving tribute to Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson is a sincere pleasure. It is unquestionably the finest piece of writing by one human being about another.

More about Johnson and Boswell soon. Until then, happy reading to you.

-Joe DeSalvo, owner, Faulkner House Books