James Boswell - The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791)
- 1 January 2005
100 Best Scottish Books of all Time
It may seem a strange thing to rate an author who begins his masterpiece with a famous demurral of his own country (‘I do indeed come from Scotland, but I cannot help it’) as one of Scotland’s greatest writers. But still, there it is; James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson is one of the great classics of literature, and deservedly so.
For a long time, received wisdom considered it a work of genius written by an idiot. As Walter Scott put it, the book, ‘though one of the most entertaining in the world, is not just what one would wish a near relation to have written’. Why? Well, mainly because it was honest. In detailing Johnson’s silly walks and old deformities, Boswell destroyed the notion of biographical subjects as distant heroic paragons. By recording his drunken outbursts and his melancholia, Boswell offered an image of his subject which was just too vivid, too tactile, too real for many readers. And by proving that Johnson had valued Boswell both as a friend and future biographer, Boswell provided proof for his critics that even Johnson was capable of making misjudgements. The only evidence he was unable to provide was the most obvious of all: the book explained why Boswell needed Johnson, but not why Johnson needed Boswell.
With time, however, the book’s flaws have become its strengths. Reading it now, 214 years after it was first published, it is still possible to be delighted and outraged by Boswell’s methodology. He could be thorough, knowing, scandalous, empathic, generous, funny, meticulous, absurd, indiscreet, hagiographic, frank and touching. He could also be a fabulous writer. The Life of Samuel Johnson earns its place not only because it is the definitive work on its subject, or because it is the first and greatest of modern biographies, or because it forever gives the lie to the literary dogma that fiction is somehow superior to non-fiction, but because everyone knows a Johnson, and everyone knows a Boswell.
Everyone has, at some stage in their lives, encountered just that same conjunction of personalities; the guru and the disciple, the boss and the deputy, the artist and the hanger-on, the been-there and the wannabe. And because, flitting almost unnoticed through its pages is something both quieter and stronger; the story of a friendship, a mutual dependency, and the bond between two flawed and brilliant men.
Further reading: An Account of Corsica (1768) includes a celebrated meeting with leader General Paoli; Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (1784) revisits Boswell and Johnson’s 1770s Highlands tour.
View the complete list of the 100 Best Scottish Books.