James Boswell, Life of Johnson

Boswell dedicated the Life to another portraitist, Johnson’s old friend Sir Joshua Reynolds, who had painted Johnson and members of his circle. Stung by the criticisms of his self-portrait in Journal of a Tour, Boswell took the opportunity to explain and defend his artistic methods:

In one respect, this Work will, in some passages, be different from the former. In my Tour, I was almost unboundedly open in my communications, and from my eagerness to display the wonderful fertility and readiness of Johnson’s wit, freely shewed to the world its dexterity, even when I was myself the object of it. I trusted that I should be liberally understood, as knowing very well what I was about, and by no means as simply unconscious of the pointed effects of the satire…But it seems I judged too well of the world….I have, therefore, in this Work been more reserved; and though I tell nothing but the truth, I have still kept in my mind that the whole truth is not always to be exposed. This, however, I have managed so as to occasion no diminution of the pleasure which my book should afford; though malignity may sometimes be disappointed of its gratifications.

Beinecke Call Number: GEN MSS 89, Box 52, Folder 1095

James Boswell, Life of Johnson

I at last deliver to the World a Work which I have long promised, and of which it is to be feared that too high expectations have been raised,” wrote Boswell, when at last the Life of Johnson was published on May 16, 1791. Published in an edition of two quarto volumes, the initial print run was 1750 copies. Within the first two weeks, 800 copies had sold.

Beinecke Call Number: GEN MSS 89, Box 52, Folder 1095

Letter to Hugh Blair, from James Boswell 1792 November

“The success of my Magnum Opus has been very great,” boasted Boswell to his Edinburgh friend, Hugh Blair. “I refused a thousand guineas for it; and the event has proved I was in the right; the first edition has produced me a good deal more. Upwards of 1650 copies were sold, of which I am sorry to say Scotland took only about 50; so virulent is Caledonian prejudice against Johnson. But his extraordinary talents and virtues will live forever in the estimation of mankind in general.”

Beinecke Call Number: GEN MSS 89, Box 1, Folder 16

The life of Samuel Johnson ...

Boswell, James, 1740-1795. The life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. : comprehending an account of his studies and numerous works in chronological order ... London : Printed by Henry Baldwin for Charles Dilly, in the Poultry, MDCCXCI [1791].

This copy of the Life contains a proof, in its earliest known state, of the engraving by James Heath of the 1756 portrait of Johnson by Joshua Reynolds.

Beinecke Call Number: Im J637 +W791 copy 4A

The life of Samuel Johnson ...

Boswell, James, 1740-1795. The life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. : comprehending an account of his studies and numerous works in chronological order ... London : Printed by Henry Baldwin for Charles Dilly, in the Poultry, MDCCXCI [1791].

Boswell inscribed this copy of the Life for William Scott, Baron Stowell.

Beinecke Call Number: Tinker +338

The life of Samuel Johnson ... 2d ed. revised and augmented ...

Boswell, James, 1740-1795. The life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D., comprehending an account of his studies and numerous works in chronological order ... 2d ed. revised and augmented ... London, Printed by H. Baldwin, for C. Dilly, 1793.

Boswell’s daughter presented John Hingston with this copy of the Life “as a small tribute of gratitude for the uncommon care and assiduity with which he attended her Father during his last illness.”

Beinecke Call Number: Im J637 W791b vol. 1

The character of Doctor Johnson ...

Temple, William Johnston, 1739-1796. The character of Doctor Johnson. With illustrations from Mrs. Piozzi, Sir John Hawkins, and Mr. Boswell. London, Printed for C. Dilly, 1792.

Other authors chose to create portraits of Johnson by drawing on all of the “rival biographers.” The advertisement to this work, attributed to William Johnson Temple, states that “the sagacity and penetration of the writer are shewn in a very remarkable and striking manner by the different accounts of Dr. Johnson, since published by Mrs. Piozzi, Sir John Hawkins, and Mr. Boswell.” Here, extensive quotations from all three biographers are used to demonstrate Johnson’s “brutal” manners and his being “perpetually inconsistent with himself.”

Beinecke Call Number: Tinker 1410

The life of Samuel Johnson ...

Boswell, James, 1740-1795. The life of Dr. Samuel Johnson, LL.D. carefully abridged from Mr. Boswell’s large work ... London, Printed for the editor; and sold by D. Brewman, W. Locke, and all other booksellers, 1792.

Possibly the first abridgement, and certainly one of the shortest, of “Mr. Boswell’s Large Work,” this 180-page volume was doubtless intended for readers who wanted to familiarize themselves with the highly publicized new Life of Johnson but not to read its 937+ pages. This much smaller version concludes with a fervent recommendation of the full-length work, praise for Boswell, and a disparagement of “former Biographers and Anecdote mongers.”

We cannot take leave of these interesting Memoirs, without saying that we conceive the very ingenious, accurate, minute, and learned Biographer, to be strongly entitled to public admiration. He has detailed the most trifling circumstances in which Dr. Johnson was concerned, in so happy a manner, that we are as eager to pursue the passing page as if wading in the history of the most important events. He does not hide the defects of his formidable friend, but gives them in so true a colour, that, when they occur, it seems as if nature, and not the man, had erred. He rescues his memory, in a complete and satisfactory manner, from the illnatured and ignorant attacks of former Biographers and Anecdote mongers, who sometimes mistook the Doctor’s meaning, and who, at others, knowingly and even cruelly perverted it.

Beinecke Call Number: Tinker 1411