Burying Boswell

October 29: On this day in 1795 James Boswell died, aged fifty-four. Even without his two-decade relationship to Samuel Johnson, Boswell would have a secure place in literary history. This is due to the remarkable stash of journals, letters, and personal papers which he kept, and which his friends and relatives kept from the world. When Boswell's papers were discovered in the 1920s and '30s the journals were eventually published in fourteen volumes, with one of these, his London Journal, now a million-seller. Other volumes of manuscripts, letters, and such documents continue to be published in scholarly editions issued by the "Boswell Factory" at Yale University, which purchased most of the known hoard of Boswelliana in 1949 for almost half-a-million dollars.


Johnson died at the end of 1784; Boswell's primary occupation over the next decade was in turning a mountain of notes, letters, and memories into his Life of Johnson. The writing was done in Boswell's Ayrshire mansion, where he had hoped to find a new "steadiness as laird of Auchinleck," thereby quitting the bad habits of his London life. The usual view is that his descendants and literary heirs boxed and conveniently lost his personal papers because they too frankly documented his failure to reform.


As Johnson put it, he was "without skill in inebriation" and addicted to "concubinage"; as his own journals lament, "Signor Gonorrhoea" came to visit a total of eighteen times. Entries for his first return to London after Johnson's death document a drunken night in which he strayed into St. Paul's Churchyard singing ballads with two prostitutes in red cloaks, got his pocket picked, and collapsed in the street. Other entries describe similar evenings with this or that "Betsy Smith," one of them after attending the execution of nineteen criminals, a side-obsession with Boswell. Such passages are balanced by volleys of self-reproach and pledges to change, and vastly outnumbered by passages of greater interest and charm, but those who inherited Boswell's mountain of papers bundled fair and foul together in cabinets, trunks, attics, and barns, dispersing them to various parts of Ireland and Scotland.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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