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James Boswell and Samuel Johnson: The Original Odd Couple

PUBLISHED: August 5, 2013


James Boswell, painted by George Willison

James Boswell | painting by George Willison


On the morning of August 6, 1763, at the English port of Harwich, a wandering navvy—what Americans would call a dockworker—might have glimpsed a sight passing strange and strangely beautiful. Making their way across the pebble-strewn beach were two men who looked like the original “Odd Couple.” One man was young and slight, fashionably dressed and coiffed, and his eyes were fixed on his older companion. The older man rolled rather than walked and wore an ill-fitting wig balanced on his great skull, his massive shoulders and arms frequently jerking as his words thundered above the waves. If the navvy followed their path, he would also have seen them halt near a packet boat bound for Holland and that the younger man, before boarding, embraced his odd companion as if they had known one another for a lifetime. As the packet slowly lurched toward the Channel, the navvy would see the older man stand and watch for a long while, then with a great spasmodic heave, turn his back to the water and trundle into town.

Yet little would our observant navvy have suspected that these friends, so deeply affected by the parting, had first met just a few months before, much less that one already was and the other would soon become writers of great renown. That day in Harwich 250 years ago, as James Boswell swayed on the ship’s deck, holding fast to his copy of Samuel Johnson’s Rambler essays, heralded the birth of two literary masterpieces: The Life of Samuel Johnson and the Journals of James Boswell.

The friendship that led to this monument very nearly did not come to pass. When the two men first met in Tom Davies’s bookshop at Covent Garden on May 16, 1763, it was less a meeting than a collision, one that left Boswell—a young, obscure, and ambitious Scot who had come to London in pursuit of fame—bruised and bloodied. Boswell had long sought an introduction to Johnson, who had by then won renown as the author of the Dictionary and the Rambler and Idler essays. But while he was taking tea with his friend Davies, Boswell was overtaken by fear to discover that Johnson had just lumbered into the shop. It certainly didn’t help that Davies, his face lighting up, donned the role of Horatio at the moment he calls Hamlet’s attention to his father’s ghost, and informed Boswell: “Look, my Lord, it comes.”

Much to Boswell’s distress and excitement, “it” was none other than Johnson. His appearance, Boswell discovered, was “dreadful”: A huge man on whom hung ill-fitted clothing, Johnson’s eyes were swollen, his body subject to palsy-like quivers and his skin pocked by childhood scrofula. Knowing Johnson’s hostility toward the Scots, a mischievous Davies immediately revealed Boswell’s nationality. Undone by his friend’s treachery, Boswell blurted: “Mr. Johnson, I do indeed come from Scotland, but I cannot help it.” Johnson was merciless: “That, Sir, I find, is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help.” Moments later, Johnson delivered a second roundhouse when he mentioned his friend David Garrick, who had refused him a favor. When Boswell piped up, declaring that Garrick would never deny a man like Johnson “such a trifle,” Johnson stared balefully at him: “Sir, I have known David Garrick longer than you have done, and I know no right you have to talk to me on the subject.”

As Boswell later wrote, “had not my ardor been uncommonly strong, and my resolution uncommonly persevering, so rough a reception might have deterred me for ever from making any further attempts.” Ardent and resolved Boswell indeed was, however, and he called upon Johnson at his lodgings just days after this verbal assault and battery. Johnson, whose dress was as worn and disheveled as his rooms, welcomed the young Scot and encouraged him to meet again. By the end of their third meeting at the Mitre Tavern, Boswell’s indefatigable buoyancy and unalloyed candor conquered the great man: In the middle of their conversation, Johnson thrust his giant arm across the table: “Give me your hand; I have taken a liking to you.”

Many long meals of beef and port with Johnson, either at the Mitre or Turk’s Head, filled Boswell’s weeks leading up to his departure for Holland. Boswell at all times wondered at his remarkable luck: “Had it been foretold to me some years ago,” he once blurted out to Johnson, “that I should pass an evening with the author of The Rambler, how should I have exulted.” Indeed, even Boswell needed time to accustom himself to the suddenness of this friendship with so “strange and somewhat uncouth,” yet so celebrated a figure. “Wrapt in admiration of his [Johnson’s] extraordinary colloquial talents,” Boswell at first could scarcely record their exchanges with accuracy. It was only when Boswell’s mind came to be “strongly impregnated with the Johnsonian ether,” that he succeeded in recreating their remarkable conversations.

It so happened that the very place where Boswell re-created these conversations, his journal, became a constant subject of conversation. The Scot’s devotion to journalizing had started the year before, when he first moved to London and determined to keep a record of his experiences. This was hardly welcomed by Boswell’s father, Lord Auchinleck, a crusty and commanding judge, in part because his son’s private journal was not at all private: Boswell meant to have his friends read these intimate pages. Moreover, for Auchinleck, formed in the crucible of Scottish Calvinism and a firm believer in the blessings of a productive life, this dubious activity amounted to little more than an apprenticeship of a wastrel.

For this reason alone, Johnson’s appearance in Boswell’s life at this point was absolutely crucial. Here was an older man, one who ceded nothing to Lord Auchinleck in authority and gravity, urging Boswell to pursue precisely the path that repelled Auchinleck. In one of his Rambler essays, Johnson had already sketched his justification for such a literary ambition. Readers, Johnson believed, would find value in any “judicious and faithful narrative” of a life, no matter how obscure. “Not only every man has, in the mighty mass of the world, great numbers in the same condition with himself, to whom his mistakes and miscarriages, escapes and expedients, would be of immediate and apparent use; but there is such an uniformity in the state of man … that there is scarce any possibility of good or ill, but is common to human kind.” The task of the biographer, he concludes, is to lead the reader’s “thoughts into domestic privacies, and …minute details of daily life.”

From biographer to autobiographer, from observer of other lives to observer of one’s own life, there is but a small step. When Boswell worried that he had been filling his own journal pages with “too many little incidents,” Johnson reassured him: “There is nothing, Sir, too little for so little a creature as man. It is by studying little things that we attain the great art of having as little misery and as much happiness as possible.” This was of a piece with Johnson’s belief that the teaching of morality—a principal aim, after all, of biography—depends upon an honest appraisal of our everyday lives. As Boswell wrote about his “Philosopher, Guide and Friend” after his death, his “maxims carry conviction; for they are founded on the basis of common sense, and a very attentive and minute survey of real life.”

That this philosophical guide and newly made friend announced to Boswell, less than a week before he was to leave for Holland, that he would accompany him to Harwich, was thus an immensely reassuring, if staggeringly unexpected offer. Nearly half a century before, Daniel Defoe had passed through the town, describing it as a place of “hurry and business, not much of gaiety and pleasure.” This was perfectly fine for Boswell, who was in a hurry to tend to the business of drawing what wisdom and succor he could from his traveling companion before boarding his packet boat to Holland, where he would follow through on a deal struck with his father: In return for studying law for a year in the city of Utrecht, young Boswell would be permitted to tour the continent before returning to Scotland and his future as a lawyer.

During a visit to the town’s main church, Johnson urged Boswell, who was kneeling on the floor, to recommend himself to the “protection of your CREATOR and REDEEMER.” As the friends then strolled toward the beach, Johnson gave another powerful, though indirect, display of his roiling faith. Perhaps to pay back Johnson’s earlier barbs, Boswell praised the ingenious metaphysics of George Berkeley, which “proved” by a series of a priori arguments that the world, and everything it contains, exists only when it is perceived by an observer. Insisting the claim was logically irrefutable, though practically nonsensical, Boswell succeeded in provoking Johnson. Lurching toward a large rock, the older man began to kick it until he rebounded from the effort. To a gaping Boswell, Johnson then victoriously declared: “I refute it thus.”

Of course, Johnson’s refutation slides off Berkeley’s Teflon-like idealism. In the realm of the a priori reasoning, Berkeley’s claim—to be is to be perceived—is incontestable; in the realm of the a posteriori, however, all we need to perceive is Johnson being Johnson. Though Berkeley’s reasoning was irreproachable, it was also irrelevant, perhaps even irresponsible. As Johnson insisted, “Truth such as is necessary to the regulation of life, is always to be found where it is honestly sought.” If not dishonest, such metaphysical undertakings were disingenuous. Not only do we not live our lives by such axioms, but we cannot do so. Rather than seeking the principles of common life, philosophers like Berkeley juggled the subtleties of rarefied thought. Several years later, when Johnson told Boswell that Berkeley had a “fine imagination,” it was less a compliment, perhaps, than a description.

After their encounter with the large stone, Johnson and Boswell continued to the harbor, where our navvy might have first caught sight of them. When the friends embraced, Boswell wrung a promise from Johnson to write letters, as well as the vow that he would not be forgotten. From the unsteady deck, Boswell later recalled that he kept his eyes on Johnson “for a considerable time, while he remained rolling his majestic frame in his usual manner; and at last I perceived him walk back into the town, and he disappeared.” Esse est percipi, to be is to be perceived, indeed. Johnson would never disappear from Boswell’s thoughts or his writings: The great man not only helped midwife the remarkable journals into existence, but he gave Boswell the courage to be Boswell.


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Ian Seymour's picture
Ian Seymour · 10 years ago
Professor Zaretsky, I have loved Johnson’s writings since I was a boy - which of course means loving Boswell’s too. I do not think I have ever read so delicious a sketch as this - thank you! You made my day!

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