This Day In Writing History
On October 29th, 1740, the famous Scottish writer James Boswell was born in Edinburgh, Scotland. His father, Alexander Boswell, was a judge and the 8th Laird of Auchinleck. His mother, Euphemia, was a strict Calvinist.
As a child, James Boswell was delicate and sickly. He suffered from an inherent nervous ailment. At the age of five, Boswell was sent to the James Mundell Academy, which was an advanced school for its time; students were taught English, Latin, writing, and mathematics.
Boswell was unhappy living at the school, and his nervous ailment manifested itself in forms such as extreme shyness and night terrors. Finally, three years later, at the age of eight, he was removed from the Academy and taught by private tutors who awakened his passion for literature.
When he was thirteen, Boswell enrolled in the arts program at the University of Edinburgh. He studied there for five years, then suffered a bout of severe depression and nervous illness. When he recovered, he had finally lost his childhood delicacy and gained good health.
Boswell continued his studies at the University of Glasgow, where he was taught by the legendary writer and philosopher Adam Smith, who would become famous for his treatise on economics, The Wealth Of Nations (1776).
While at Glasgow, Boswell decided to convert to Catholicism and become a monk, which prompted his irate father to demand that he return home. Instead, Boswell ran away to London, where for three months, he lived the unrestrained life of a libertine until his father came to bring him back to Scotland.
When he returned to Edinburgh, Boswell re-enrolled at university to finish his education. On July 30th, 1762, he took his oral law exam, which he passed easily. The following year, he met Samuel Johnson for the first time, and they became close friends.
Johnson was a legendary English writer, literary critic, scholar, and lexicographer (he wrote the first dictionary of the English language) who has been rightfully described as "arguably the most distinguished man of letters in English history." He called Boswell "Bozzy."
Three months after he met Johnson, Boswell left for the Netherlands, where he planned to continue his law studies at Utrecht University. Although deeply unhappy at first, Boswell eventually came to enjoy his time in Utrecht greatly.
He met and fell in love with an eccentric, vivacious young Dutchwoman named Belle van Zuiylen, who proved to be his social and intellectual superior. She wouldn't marry him, so Boswell left Utrecht and traveled around Europe for two years, where he would meet legendary French writers and philosophers Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
He also met one of his heroes, the Italian independence leader Pasquale Paoli. The diaries that Boswell kept during his time in Utrecht and his travels through Europe would later be published as Boswell In Holland (1763-64) and Boswell On The Grand Tour (1764-66).
In 1766, Boswell returned to Scotland, where he took his final law exam, passed it, and became a practicing advocate for over a decade. Once a year, he would go to London to see his friend Samuel Johnson and hobnob with London's literati. His journals and letters from this time chronicled his libertine exploits.
In a 1767 letter to W.J. Temple, Boswell wrote "I got myself quite intoxicated, went to a Bawdy-house and past a whole night in the arms of a whore. She indeed was a fine strong spirited girl, a whore worthy of Boswell if Boswell must have a whore."
Earlier, Boswell had written of a one night stand he had with an actress named Louisa. Though he occasionally used a condom for protection, Boswell would contract venereal disease at least seventeen times.
In November of 1769, Boswell married his cousin, Margaret Montgomerie. She bore him seven children, two of whom died in infancy. He also had at least two illegitimate children who died in infancy. Despite his frequent visits to brothels, Margaret remained with him for twenty years, until her death from tuberculosis in 1789.
Boswell achieved moderate literary success with the publication of his travel journals, but was unsuccessful as an advocate. By the late 1770s, he had plunged into a quagmire of alcoholism and gambling addiction, and also suffered from severe mood swings, most likely the result of bipolar disorder.
After his old friend Samuel Johnson died in 1784, Boswell moved to London to try his hand at the English Bar, but was even less successful than he was as an advocate in Scotland. So, he spent most of his last years writing a biography of Samuel Johnson, which was published in 1791.
It was a masterpiece, considered to be the greatest biography ever written. Unlike most biographies of the time, which just provided the dry details of an individual's public life, Boswell's biography of Johnson was revolutionary.
The book included far more personal information than readers of the time were accustomed to, providing them with not only a record of Johnson's public life and works, but also a vivid personal account of Johnson the man. Boswell even included transcripts of conversations he'd had with Johnson.
The longevity of Samuel Johnson's fame owes itself mostly to James Boswell's biography. With the publication of The Life of Samuel Johnson, James Boswell finally received the literary recognition he'd sought for so long. It remains a classic to this day.
After the book was published, Boswell's health began to deteriorate from the ravages of alcoholism and venereal disease. He died on May 19th, 1795, at the age of 54.
Over 120 years after Boswell's death, a large collection of his papers, including intimate journals he'd kept throughout his life, were discovered at Malahide Castle, North of Dublin. They were sold to an American collector and later passed on to Yale University, which published them.
Quote Of The Day
"I hate mankind, for I think myself one of the best of them, and I know how bad I am." - James Boswell
Today's video features a BBC documentary on James Boswell. Enjoy!