The Correspondence of James Boswell and John Johnston of Grange

The Correspondence of James Boswell and John Johnston of Grange

Editor: Ralph S. Walker

London: Heinemann; New York: McGraw Hill, 1966

ISBN: none

Hardback, xlix, 369 pagesCorrespondence of James Boswell and John Johnston of Grange

This volume, the first to appear in the Yale Research Edition, presents the record of a remarkable friendship between two men of opposite temperaments, who grew together in a relationship of such “reciprocity and mutual convenience” that they became almost indispensable to each other. The correspondence revealed Boswell’s many-faceted character in a new and favorable light, and it brought the retiring figure of Johnston, about whom so little had been known, out of obscurity and into the foreground. It allows us to know better the man for whom Boswell first wrote his now famous London Journal 17621763.

Boswell’s letters to Johnston are unreserved and unaffected, free of the uneasy desire to impress that sometimes betrays itself in his attitude towards other correspondents. His Journal often depicts him as volatile and inconsistent, and many have come to think of him as alternating between shame at his own lack of steadfastness and delight at seeing himself in the character of social chameleon; but in the correspondence with Johnston he shows himself capable of unwavering loyalty.   

Boswell and Johnston first met at Edinburgh University, in Robert Hunter’s Greek class, in 1755. Their correspondence began in the autumn of 1759, the time of Johnston’s law-apprenticeship, just before Boswell’s move to the University of Glasgow, and continued until 1786, the year of Johnston’s death and of Boswell’s ill-advised abandonment of the Scottish for the English bar. This volume includes 142 letters from Boswell to Johnston and 22—all that are preserved—from Johnston to Boswell.


The correspondence of James Boswell and John Johnston spans almost three decades, from the former’s student days at Edinburgh University to the death of the latter in 1786. Of a total of 164 letters, by far the greater portion from Boswell, of course, 142  have survived. Their publication is a superlative achievement of editorial scholarship. Texts are faithfully reproduced; headings are painstakingly helpful and informative; and footnotes are rich to the point of rococo.

What Boswell and his older friend wrote to each other impinged scarcely at all upon the great world. The value of their correspondence lies rather in the information it gives on Boswell’s private life, particularly on his truly charming capacity for friendship with a fellow Scot whose temperament differed radically from his own. Johnston was modest, awkward, indolent, provincial, the perfect foil for the ebullient, egocentric, ambitious young man in love with the haut monde and passionately longing to make it his native habitat. There were also important common denominators, however: background, the law, tavern haunting , wenching, the “spleen.” More important, truer gauges of character were the decent, unswerving, manly loyalty and the mutual support in times of need.

Charles Ritcheson, The American Historical Review, January 1967.

[T]here are figures who may be of lesser importance to us, but were of great importance to Boswell. One of these was his lifelong friend John Johnston of Grange, and their correspondence, ably edited by Professor Walker, provides a supplement to the biography [James Boswell: The Earlier Years] and to the Journals (for in the latter Boswell was addressing not just his friend “worthy Grange,” but also Posterity). This is the record of a friendship, of mutual dependence.

Reginald Mutter, Times Literary Supplement, January 12, 1967