Two-hundred fifty years ago today, on May 16, 1763, Boswell met Johnson for the first time in Tom Davies’s Bookshop in Russell Street, Covent Garden, London. Johnson was fifty-three and already a formidable literary eminence, author of The Dictionary of the English Language; Boswell, at twenty-two, was a lawyer from Scotland given to drinking and whoring. Their time together was brief but Boswell used it well, turning great stretches of his journal into a repository for Johnsoniana. They never met during Boswell’s Grand Tour from August 1763 to March 1766. For most of the next eighteen years of Johnson's life, Boswell remained in Edinburgh and Johnson stayed in London, Oxford or Lichfield. In the fall of 1773 they spent eighty-three days touring Scotland and the Western Islands, their longest time together. During the twenty-one years of their friendship, scholars have calculated they shared company for fewer than one-thousand days.
Macaulay famously thought it “immoral” that so great a book as the Life of Johnson should be authored by such “a great fool.” For Macaulay, Boswell was an idiot savant of literature, a moral leper who somehow turned himself into a writer of genius. Macaulay’s censure postponed a proper assessment of Boswell’s achievement for more than a century. The discovery of Boswell’s journals in the 1920s and 1930s, and the publication of the London Journal 1762-1763 in 1950, followed by subsequent volumes in the series, sparked an ongoing reassessment. In A Life of James Boswell (1999), Peter Martin writes:
“At first, the journals appeared to confirm the nineteenth-century perception of Boswell as a compulsive womanizer, drinker and gambler, a habitual gallant who only seemed happy when acting the fool. But readers soon began to see him as a highly complex figure, someone they thought they understood and with whom they were prepared to travel the extra mile. His honesty, sincerity, geniality, sensitivity, and desire to become a better human being are partly responsible for this change of perception. His journals also show him to be a conscientious and talented writer. Perhaps most importantly, they reveal the degree of mental suffering he endured for most of his lifetime.”
He was, in short, Johnson writ small. There’s a well-known passage in the Life of Johnson still disputed by scholars. The attribution is ambiguous. Is Johnson or Boswell the speaker?:
“We cannot tell the precise moment when a friendship is formed. As in filling a vessel drop by drop, there is at last a drop which makes it run over; so in a series of kindness there is at last one which makes the heart run over.”
I savor the confusion. How appropriate that so fine an observation on the nature of friendship might have been written by either friend. It sounds like Johnson, who came to love and understand his young, wayward friend. In “What Johnson Means to Me” (Samuel Johnson After 300 Years, 2009), the poet David Ferry writes:
“Johnson is, to my mind, in his prose and in his verse, one of the masters of pity, unsentimental pity founded on his awareness of our situation in a universe we cannot fully explicate; and it is founded on his awareness that our limitations, our vulnerability, are what we, all fellow creatures, share, the actualities of our natures and of our circumstances. In thinking of Johnson’s writing, pity is a name for looking steadily at things. The evidence is everywhere in him, in the Ramblers, in The Vanity of Human Wishes, in the `Life of Pope,’ in the Tolstoyan severity and sympathy of the `Life of Savage,’ his Hadji Murad.”