Little Bits of History

Friends and Heroes

Posted in History by patriciahysell on May 16, 2014
James Boswell's Life of Johnson

James Boswell’s Life of Johnson

May 16, 1763: Author and subject meet. Samuel Johnson was a British poet, essayist, moralist, literary critic, biographer, editor, and lexicographer. Born in Lichfield, Staffordshire, England he has been described as “arguably the most distinguished man of letters in English history.” But it is not as an author that we meet with him today. Rather, he is the subject of the most famous biography ever written. He was 54 years old when he first met the young man, 24-year-old James Boswell, who would write this famous biography, changing the genre for future biographers around the world.

Boswell was born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1740 and was a lawyer and diarist as well as the more spectacular calling of biographer. His name has come to mean something more than simply the man, but instead to be a constant companion and observer, especially one who records his/her observations. He was the eldest son of a judge and both parents were not terribly affectionate. He suffered from anxiety as a child and this would haunt him all his life. He was sent away to school at the age of five and was brought back home by the age of eight since his symptoms had finally manifested in physical issues. With private tutors, he bloomed and by age thirteen he was enrolled at the University of Edinburgh but suffered serious depression while there, as well.

Life of Samuel Johnson was assiduously researched. The younger man had a case of hero worship for the brilliant man of letters and this was not diminished by their close contact. Since Johnson’s life predated his author’s by decades, the younger man took great pains to find out as much as possible about what happened prior to their meeting. There are some liberties with the authorship wherein the biographer revised some of Johnson’s quotes and even censored many comments. Even with these shortcomings, the book is considered a source of information not only on Johnson’s life, but on the times in which he lived.

The two met on this day at Tom Davies’ book shop and an abiding friendship bloomed. Boswell would travel or return to Scotland for months at a time, but returned for further research and to rekindle the friendship. He kept meticulous journals during these visits and when these were published in the 20th century, they filled 18 volumes. Other biographers were already working on Johnson biographies and many more have been published since. However, Boswell’s is the most famous even though scholars have figured that the most time the two could have spent together was 250 days. Johnson died in 1784 at the age of 75 and it was not until 1791 that his life would be open to such scrutiny inside Boswell’s excellent book.

A page of my journal is like a cake of portable soup. A little may be diffused into a considerable portion. – James Boswell

A companion loves some agreeable qualities which a man may possess, but a friend loves the man himself. – James Boswell

The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good. – Samuel Johnson

A wise man will make haste to forgive, because he knows the true value of time, and will not suffer it to pass away in unnecessary pain. – Samuel Johnson

Also on this day: “Oh-oh! SpaghettiOs!” – In 1965 Franco-American puts SpaghettiOs on the market.
Sedition – In 1918, a new Sedition Act was put into place in the US.
Hank – In 1905, Henry Fonda was born.
Sassafras Tea – In 1866, Charles Hires invented root beer.

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