Journal entry, 1772 March 1

Although Boswell began recording details of his encounters with Johnson as soon as he met him in May of 1763, his first mention of a “plan to write the Life of Mr Johnson” occurs in this Journal entry for Tuesday, March 31, 1772. While he had not confided his intentions to Johnson, it is hard to imagine that Johnson did not guess the motive behind Boswell’s questions concerning “all the little circumstances of his life.”

I have a constant plan to write the life of Mr. Johnson. I have not told him of it yet; nor do I know if I should tell him. I said that if it was not troublesome and presuming too much I would beg of him to tell me all the little circumstances of his life, what schools he attended, when he came to Oxford, when he came to London, etc. etc. He did not dissapprove of my curiosity as to these particulars, but said, “They’ll come out by degrees.”

Beinecke Call Number: GEN MSS 89, Box 40, Folder 959

Questions for Francis Barber, 1786 July 15

Boswell drew on his own documentation of his friendship with Johnson for many details of his life and conversation, but the man Boswell met in 1763 was already 54, famous, and long since widowed. To create a full portrait of Johnson, Boswell would have to rely on “the most authentick accounts that can be obtained from those who knew him best” (first Advertisement for the Life). Boswell’s eagerness to discover information about Johnson’s previous life, particularly his marriage, is clear in this list of questions for Francis Barber, the freed Jamaican slave who was Johnson’s manservant for 32 years. Boswell may have been surprised to hear “an Apothecary in Cork Street Burlington Gardens” and “the wife of a tallow chandler on Snowhill” mentioned as frequent visitors of his learned mentor.

Boswell’s list:

Where did your master and mistress live when you first came to Dr. Johnson? If in London in what part? Had they not a lodging at Hampstead? Did they both live there? Or did she live there alone?

Barber’s reply:

Mrs. Johnson was dead a fortnight or three weeks before he came to the Dr. The Dr. was in great affliction. Mrs. Williams was then living in his house which was in Gough Square. The friends who came about him then were chiefly Dr. Bathurst—and Mr. Diamond an Apothecary in Cork Street Burlington gardens. There was a talk of the Dr. going to Iceland with him, which he supposes would have happened had Mr. Diamond lived.… Mrs. Masters the Poetess (who lived with Mr. Cave)—Mrs. Carter and Mrs. Macaulay some times also Mrs. Gardiner the wife of a tallow chandler on Snowhill, not in the learned way, but a worthy good woman. Mr. (now Sir Joshua) Reynolds….

Beinecke Call Number: GEN MSS 89, Box 1, Folder 9

Letter to Francis Barber, from James Boswell 1787 June 29

After the publication of Sir John Hawkins’s Life of Johnson, Boswell saw an opportunity to enlist Barber in support of his own production, as Hawkins had accused Johnson of “ill-directed benevolence” in providing so liberally for Barber in his will, as well as insinuating that Barber’s wife was unfaithful to him. Boswell wrote to Barber in June of 1787, requesting that he, as an executor, demand all of Johnson’s “diaries and papers” from Hawkins, and helpfully pointing out that he had insulted Barber’s wife.

Dear Sir, Sir John Hawkins having done gross injustice to the character of the great and good Dr. Johnson, and having written so injuriously of you and Mrs. Barber as to deserve severe animadversion and perhaps to be brought before the spiritual court, I cannot doubt of your inclination to afford me all the helps you can, to state the truth fairly, in the work which I am now preparing for the press.

Barber did demand the papers from Hawkins, but was told that Hawkins had none “of any value.”

Beinecke Call Number: GEN MSS 89, Box 1, Folder 9

The life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. ...

Hawkins, John, Sir, 1719-1789. The life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.. London: Printed for J. Buckland, J. Rivington and sons, T. Payne and Sons ..., [1787].

A longtime friend of Johnson’s, Hawkins was a music scholar and lawyer who met Johnson when they were both writing articles for Edmund Cave’s Gentleman’s Magazine in the 1740s. Hawkins began advertising his “authentick life” in December of 1784, which provoked an anonymous attack on him as a “Self-Appointed Biographer.” When it appeared in 1787, the volume did not please the public, although it contained some new material. Hawkins’s own daughter called it “stiff, cold, and turgid” and Boswell and his allies attacked it.

As Boswell observed to William Johnson Temple in a letter dated 5 March, 1789, “Hawky is no doubt very malignant. Observe how he talks of me as if quite unknown.” Temple replied, “it is certainly jaundiced with a deep tincture of malignity and he richly deserves your censure.”

This copy belonged to Boswell’s great friend and editor Edmond Malone, without whose efforts his Life of Johnson might never have been finished.

Beinecke Call Number: Osborn pc238

Letter to Hugh Blair, 1787 August

Boswell wrote disdainfully of Hawkins’s memoir to Blair: “You will now be wondering why my Life of Dr. Johnson has not yet appeared. The truth is that besides the various avocations which have insensibly hindered it, I have solid reasons for delay, both from the motive of having Sir John Hawkins to precede me that I might profit by his gross faults and from that of giving time for the accession of materials of which I have received a great addition since I last wrote to you. I am resolved that my work shall be published in the course of the next session of Parliament.”

“Believe me,” he concludes, “the Johnsonian enthusiasm is as warm as ever.”

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

Letter to William Johnson Temple, 1788 February 9

William Johnson Temple, one of Boswell’s oldest friends, was somewhat more impressed by the Hawkins Life than Boswell, and he cautioned his friend against overstating the case against the rival biographer in a letter of February 9, 1788.

Does Sir J. Hawkins misrepresent so much as you allege. Does he not give one a pretty faithful idea of his great friend? The lines perhaps are rather strong, but are they not true? What does Sir Joshua, what does Mr. Burke think? They are more impartial judges.

Beinecke Call Number: GEN MSS 89, Box 33, Folder 852

Winter evenings: or, lucubrations on life and letters ...

Winter evenings: or, lucubrations on life and letters in three volumes. London: for Charles Dilly, 1788.

The publication of these “warts and all” portraits of the revered moralist Samuel Johnson did not please all readers. Vicesimus Knox, almost unknown today, was the long-term headmaster of Tonbridge School and a prolific author, whose early essays were published on Johnson’s recommendation. Knox’s vividly phrased criticisms of what we might call the “pathographies” of Johnson (and others) allow us to see how much these works violated earlier norms of decorum and discretion to cater to a public hungry for anecdote and gossip.

Biography is every day descending from its dignity. Instead of an instructive recital, it is becoming an instrument to the mere gratification of an impertinent, not to say a malignant, curiosity.…But this biographical anatomy, in minutely dissecting parts, destroys the beauty of the whole; just as in cutting up the most comely body many loathsome objects are presented to the eye, and the beautiful form is utterly disfigured.

Many of his apparent friends, one may suppose, were of those who forced themselves into his company and acquaintance in order to gain credit, and satisfy their own vanity. They had little cordiality of affection for him, and no objection to lower his memory, if they could raise their own names to eminence on the ruins….If he were alive, he would crush the swarms of insects that have attacked his character both in conversation and in writing, and with one sarcastic blow, flap them into nonexistence.

Beinecke Call Number: 1985 223

Letter from Mary Adey, 1785 February 26

Boswell conducted extensive research among Johnson’s friends, requesting information, anecdotes, names of other possible contacts, and corrections of possible errors.

This letter, from Johnson’s Lichfield friend Mary Adey, was written in response to Boswell’s instruction that she should “think nothing too small” to record. Indeed, one anecdote she supplied was used by Boswell to illustrate the young Johnson as “the infant Hercules of Toryism.”

When the famous Dr. Sacheverell was at Lichfield Johnson was not quite 3 years old. My Grandfather Hammond observ’d him at the Cathedral perch’d upon his Father’s Shoulder listening and gazing at the much celebrated Preacher. [Johnson] had caught the Publick Spirit and zeal for Sacheverell and would have staid forever in the Church Satisfied with beholding him.... Certainly there was something very Peculiar in this for so young an Infant.

The second anecdote, however, failed to make the cut, although it did illustrate Johnson’s lifelong bluntness in conversation:

Mrs. Gastrel tells me he was one Day expressing to her his great dislike of any indecency of Conversation. He told her, if he kept a Whore and the Hussey were to talk impudently to him he wou’d kick her out of Doors.

Beinecke Call Number: GEN MSS 89, Box 9, Folder 253
Life of Johnson

Despite his reputation for indiscretion and garrulity, Boswell chose to omit much information that he gathered, including this interview with Mrs. Desmoulins, who had lived in Johnson’s household for many years. One of the few remaining friends who had known Johnson’s wife Tetty, Elizabeth Desmoulins would prove to be a rich source of information on Johnson’s strong “amorous inclinations.” On this evening, after “the Doctor had retired to take a nap,” Boswell and the painter Mauritius Lowe sat in Johnson’s parlor and extensively questioned Mrs. Desmoulins on Johnson’s sexual appetites. Lowe repeated his belief that Johnson had had none, while Boswell pressed her for more details: “And he showed strong signs of that passion?...What would he do?...But he conquered his violent inclination?” Boswell’s attitude toward the information stands in contrast to Burke’s:

What a curious account. That he should bring himself to the very verge of what he thought a crime. Mr. Burke, to whom I afterwards told it, thought there was nothing very curious—just common human nature. But it was certainly curious in so eminent a man.

His final comment on the interview is perhaps contained in the title: the interview may have been “extraordinary Johnsoniana,” but it is also “Tacenda” (not to be mentioned).

Beinecke Call Number: GEN MSS 89, Box 45, Folder 1014

Life of Johnson

Johnson’s life—and literary persona—were pieced together by his biographers, in stories, anecdotes, and snippets from works by Johnson and his contemporaries. Here Boswell recounts an anecdote on Hugh Blair, who criticized “the Johnsonsian style as too pompous” by imitating it with an excerpt from The Spectator. “Leave a space for six lines” notes Boswell, to mark where this “pseudo-Johnson” quotation should be inserted. He records as well Johnson’s response: “These are not the words I should have used.”

Beinecke Call Number: GEN MSS 89, Box 55, Folder 1182

The Gentleman's Magazine

"Mr. Boswells life of Dr. Johnson ... : the publick are respectfully informed, that Mr. Boswells life of Dr. Johnson is in great forwardness ...." The Gentleman's Magazine. [London], 1787 June.

“The Publick are respectfully informed,” announced the Gentleman’s Magazine in June of 1787, “that Mr. Boswell’s LIFE of Dr. JOHNSON is in great Forwardness. The Reason of its having been delayed is, that some other Publications on that Subject were promised, from which he expected to obtain much Information.... These Works have now made their Appearance; and, though disappointed in that Expectation, he does not regret the Deliberation with which he has proceeded, as very few Circumstances relative to the History of Dr. JOHNSON’s private Life, Writings, or Conversation, have been told with that authentic Precision which alone can render Biography valuable.”

Beinecke Call Number: Im B654 787L