The Life of James Boswell

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James Boswell wrote “The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.,” a biography about Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), a great English writer, in 1791. Despite recent critics, many people reflect it as the ultimate biography ever transcribed in the English language. The notion can be accredited to how Boswell innovatively and chronologically organizes his work to capture and present the life of Dr. Johnson to the present and future generations. Thus, Boswell covered numerous themes including religion, education, relationships, and conflicts. This paper will analyze the groundbreaking work by Boswell, drawing specific examples from the text to show its strengths that make it the most fabulous biography written.

First-hand Information and Well-conducted Research

First and foremost, Boswell used first-hand information and well-conducted research to write about his subject. He wrote:

“[…] and from time to time obligingly satisfied my inquiries, by communicating to me the incidents of his early years; as I acquired a facility in recollecting, and was very assiduous in recording his conversation, […] and as I have spared no pains in obtaining materials concerning him, from every quarter where I could discover that they were to be found, and have been favored with the most liberal communications by his friends. (8-9)

This galore of data enabled Boswell to exhaustively write about Dr. Johnson in the twenty-two years that he knew him personally and his prior life. Thus, Boswell covered the entire life of this great English poet and writer starting from his birth, baptism, childhood experience, education, marriage, work, old age, and death. For instance, Boswell highlighted a story about Dr. Johnson killing a duckling drawing from an “epitaph” the accused wrote to his mother. Boswell wrote, “But there has been another story of his infant precocity generally circulated, and generally believed, the truth of which I am to refute upon his authority” (11). From this excerpt, Boswell shows the relationship that existed between the Samuel Johnson and his mother in his infantry life. The “epitaph” also shows that Johnson avoided conflicts in as much as he could. Boswell also highlighted the education of Dr. Johnson in which he gave his experience and the treatment he received from tutors, especially Mr. Hunter, which enabled him to be among the best in Latin during his time (13).

Passion for Language Development

Boswell also highlighted the passion that Johnson had for the development of language and facilitating their learning through his encounter with him. “He advised me to complete a Dictionary of words peculiar to Scotland, of which I showed him a specimen […] By collecting those of your country, you will do a useful thing towards the history of the language. He made me also go on with collections which I was making upon the antiquities of Scotland (114). Boswell, therefore, used his experience with the writer to show his love for writing especially on languages and differentiating the English variants. It must be remembered that Dr. Johnson wrote the first English dictionary, “A Dictionary of the English Language.”

Religious Beliefs

According to Boswell, Dr. Johnson was a religious man from his birth. Boswell gave a conversation he had with Mr. Johnson in London in which Mr. Johnson affirmed that he was a Presbyterian and held no grudge against the Roman Catholics in Scotland (118). Mr. Johnson’s words showed that he did not want to draw any religious skirmishes. Indeed, Boswell wrote, “[…] his initiation into the Christian Church was not delayed; for his baptism is recorded, in the register of St. Mary's parish in that city, to have been performed on the day of his birth” (10). Evidently, the author of the pioneering biography gathered the content of his bibliography from multiple sources such as church records and the subject's account to present an authentic work.

Physical Attributes

Unlike most biographies, Boswell preserved a part of his work to give the physical attributions of his subject. Artistically, he connected these characteristics to show how they contributed to the success of Dr. Johnson. “Mr. Michael Johnson was a man of a large and robust body, and of a strong and active mind; yet, as in the most solid rocks veins of unsound substance are often discovered […] (10). These vivid descriptions paint the picture of Dr. Johnson while rocks are used to represent his capability and excellent mental power symbolically.

Freedom as an Author

Lastly, Boswell effectively used the liberty granted to him as an author to choose what his work contains. Despite writing about someone else's life that has already been determined, biographers are given freedom to change their words and not mention some occurrences that they may deem inappropriate for the occasion. While narrating of a suicide case that Mr. Johnson was interested in, Boswell penned, “Lord ———' cook shot himself with one pistol, and lived ten days in great agony. Mr. ———, who loved buttered muffins […]” (273). This kind of style has not been present in most biographies as most authors have preferred to put down words as their subjects had articulated them without making any changes.


In conclusion, Boswell’s “The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.,” is a landmark work that has set the pace for the late artists. The non-fiction work has utilized from direct experience with the subject as well as other resources like people associated with him and documented information. Further, the author has made good use of the freedom he enjoys as an artist to ensure that he has disseminated the intended information. Therefore, Boswell set a mark to be aimed by biographical authors.

Work Cited

Boswell, James. The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. Edited by Charles Grosvenor Osgood, Princeton University, 1917.

December 12, 2023




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