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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

VIII. Johnson and Boswell

§ 34. An Account of Corsica; His later life and labours; His death, and his posthumously published Letters

Born at Edinburgh in 1740, the son of a Scottish advocate who took his title as a judge from his ancient estate of Auchinleck in Ayrshire, Boswell reluctantly adopted the family profession of law, and, after studying at Edinburgh, Glasgow and Utrecht, was called to the Scottish bar in 1766. His heart was never in a legal career, and, to the last, he had a fond belief in sudden and splendid success in literature or politics. His earliest work appeared in The Scots Magazine, but has not been identified. He wrote much verse and published An Elegy on the death of an amiable young lady (1761), An Ode to Tragedy, dedicated to himself (1761), and The Cub at Newmarket, a humorous description of his experiences as the guest of the Jockey club (1762). Several of his earliest pieces are printed in A Collection of Original Poems, by the Rev. Mr. Blacklock and other Scotch Gentlemen (1760–2), the second volume of which he edited. He frequented the literary society of Edinburgh, founded the jovial “Soaping Club” and engaged in regular correspondence with his friends. The Letters between the Hon. Andrew Erskine and James Boswell Esq., in which, also, there is much verse, he published in 1763. “They have made ourselves laugh,” says the advertisement; “we hope they will have the same effect upon other people.” They were hardly worth publishing, though we should be sorry now not to have them. In the description of a long series of daydreams, given with the characteristic vanity which is always saved by its frankness, he says:

  • I am thinking of the perfect knowledge which I shall acquire of men and manners, of the intimacies which I shall have the honour to form with the learned and ingenious in every science, and of the many amusing literary anecdotes which I shall pick up.
  • This was published, from Flexney’s shop in Holborn, in the very month that he met Johnson in Davies’s parlour. Shortly before this, he had brought out, with Erskine and George Dempster, his two associates in much of his early work, the rare Critical Strictures on Mallet’s Elvira. He returned to Edinburgh from his continental travels in 1766, and, being admitted to the bar in the midst of the excitement about the Douglas cause, found in it material for Dorando (June, 1767), which recounts the points at issue under a Spanish disguise, and appeared immediately before the thirteen Scottish judges, by a majority of one, arrived at a decision contrary to his wishes. The little story went into three editions within a fortnight, but it now disappoints the hopes excited by its rarity. As the case was sent up to the House of Lords, where the decision was ultimately reversed, Boswell continued to write about it and brought out the more serious Essence of the Douglas Cause (November, 1767). He took an energetic part in the riotous controversy concerning the Edinburgh stage and supplied the prologue for the opening of the first licensed theatre in Scotland. At the same time, he was engaged on his Corsican experiences. An Account of Corsica had been read by Lord Hailes in manuscript in June, 1767, and was issued in March, 1768. It is Boswell’s first considerable book, and, indeed, his only book, apart from those concerned with Johnson, that had a chance of being remembered on its merits. It won what he calls “amazing celebrity”; he could boast that he was “really the great man now.” His head was full of Corsica and was not to be emptied of it, even on Johnson’s advice. He made a collection of twenty letters by himself and others, and published them under the title British Essays in favour of the Brave Corsicans (January, 1769); and, in the following September, he appeared at the Shakespeare festival at Stratford in the dress of an armed Corsican chief and recited a poem that “preserved the true Corsican character.” A description of the proceedings, an account of himself, and the poem were immediately contributed by him to The London Magazine. Two months later, he married, and then tried to settle to his legal practice. From this time, the influence of Johnson, already evident in An Account of Corsica, grew steadily stronger. He was not satisfied with Edinburgh after the splendour of London. “The unpleasing tone, the rude familiarity, the barren conversation,” he complains, “really hurt my feelings.” But he had to content himself with lengthy visits to London in vacation, which were the more indispensable when Johnson had procured his election to The Club, and he had become a proprietor of The London Magazine. He contributed to it, monthly, a series of seventy periodical essays called The Hypochondriack (1777–83), for which he found much material in himself. There is also much in them that was inspired by the dominating friendship. They take The Rambler as their model, and are the most Johnsonian of his writings. After the death of his father and his own succession to Auchinleck, in 1782, he turned to politics, and carried out his ambition of becoming a member of the English bar, but to no purpose. He stood for parliament, and published two letters “to the people of Scotland”; one, On the Present State of the Nation (1783), and the other, On the Alarming Attempt to infringe the Articles of the Union (1785). All he obtained was the recordership of Carlisle, which he soon resigned. In his last years, which were saddened by the loss of his wife and troubled with financial difficulties, he is still found hoping that practice may come at any time and expecting “a capital prize.” He confesses that he no longer lives with a view to have surprising incidents, though he is still desirous that his life “should tell.” But he begins to waken from the long delusion and, in a melancholy moment, admits: “I certainly am constitutionally unfit for any employment.” He was then on the point of achievement. His life was to tell better than he knew, and in another way than he had hoped. His friendship for Johnson was helping him in these years to do what he was unable to do for himself. Without Johnson, he relapses to the level of his early verse in No Abolition of Slavery; or the Universal Empire of Love (April, 1791). And, when the effort of producing the great work is over, there remains only the record of steady decline, varied by new schemes of matrimony, and cheered by large sales and the preparation of new editions. He died in London, 19 May, 1795. From 1758 to within a few weeks of his death, he had corresponded regularly with William Johnson Temple, a fellow student in the Greek class at Edinburgh who became vicar of St. Gluvias in Cornwall; and these letters, which had been sold by a hawker at Boulogne and were rescued to be published in 1857, give us his real autobiography. They tell us much more than the many descriptions of himself, from his Ode to Tragedy to the “Memoirs” in the European Magazine of 1791. If they show why his descendants decided on a holocaust of his papers, they also explain the attraction which he exerted on those who took the trouble to try to understand him.