Discovery of the Papers
For about 150 years after his death, James Boswell (1740–1795) was widely known as an eccentric Scottish gentleman lawyer who happened to write the Life of Samuel Johnson, LLD (first edition 1791), one of the supreme achievements in biography, and The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, with Samuel Johnson, LLD (1785), an unusual and compelling travel book. The significance of those works remains undiminished today. Our portrait of Boswell and our sense of his significance, however, have undergone a major transformation.
It had been known that Boswell left behind a large collection of letters and journals, but these were thought to have been destroyed. In 1807, Boswell’s friend and editor Edmond Malone mentioned in a footnote in the fifth edition of the Life—one letter in particular having been “burned in a mass of papers in Scotland”—and nobody even attempted to recover the papers until Dr. George Birkbeck Hill, in the 1880s, went to Auchinleck to retrieve the proof-sheets of the Life of Johnson in preparation of his edition of that work. But even he reported no other papers, and when some of Boswell’s library was auctioned off at Sotheby’s in 1893, there was no mention of any correspondence or journals.
In the 1920s and 1930s, the scholarly world learned that James Boswell’s considerable archives had survived and were, as it happened, unceremoniously packed away in the haylofts and croquet boxes of his descendants at Malahide Castle in Ireland and Fettercairn House in Scotland. The process of persuading Boswell’s descendants to part with the papers and then assembling them into one collection was the achievement of the intrepid American collector Ralph Heyward Isham. Colonel Isham’s mission, costly and often frustrating, would take the better part of two decades to complete. In 1949 the Boswell collection was acquired by Yale University. In the next half-century, Colonel Isham’s belief in the importance of Boswell’s papers would be justified many times over: they have become a primary source for literary scholars and historians of the eighteenth century and an object of interest to the wider reading public.
The papers in the Boswell collection at Yale University are now housed in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. With later acquisitions, the collection runs to some fifteen thousand items—including Boswell’s correspondence of about 6,000 letters, the private journals he kept for more than thirty years, the original manuscripts of the Life of Johnson and the Tour to the Hebrides, as well as unpublished manuscripts, legal papers, account books, five centuries of family estate papers, private notes, printed materials, and a variety of ephemera. The journals and correspondence, already known to have been among the sources for the biography of Johnson, were also found to be a remarkably full and frank record of Boswell’s own daily struggles and triumphs, the society of his age in Britain and Europe, and the men and women he encountered. Boswell came to know not only Johnson and his circle, but many other important British and European figures of the second half of the eighteenth century. He was a skillful orchestrator of conversation and brilliant at recording it in colorful detail. If some of his contemporaries were wary of Boswell’s habit of recording their conversation, historians have benefited from the vivid portrayals and candid conversations he committed to paper. No student of David Hume, Rousseau, Voltaire, John Wilkes, Edmund Burke, or Sir Joshua Reynolds, to name but a few, can consult the journals and the letters without being rewarded by the candid self-disclosures that Boswell was capable of eliciting.
Boswell’s journals and correspondence are, however, far more than a chronicle of the great and the famous. His appetite for life was large and his interest in people all-inclusive. His papers constitute a social history in the broadest sense. They are populated with petty thieves and notorious confidence tricksters , provincial clergymen and estate laborers, Grub Street hacks and men and women of great distinction, streetwalkers and innkeepers, princes, lords, and their servants. Himself a Tory and a pious man, Boswell could in the space of a few days entertain the friendship and views of the conservative Samuel Johnson, the radical Whig John Wilkes, and the skeptic David Hume. The result is a lively depiction of the political and intellectual debates of a pivotal period in modern history. Boswell records contemporary perceptions of the classicism of the Enlightenment, the romanticism of Rousseau, the literary atmosphere of what has come to be designated the Age of Johnson, the British system of patronage and the urge towards Parliamentary reform, the dissenters and the Church of England, the American and French Revolutions, the greatest scandal (the trial of Warren Hastings), the expansions of British colonial power as well as its greatest defeat (American independence), and the Industrial Revolution and agricultural reform.
Completed and Ongoing Work
The Yale Editions of the Private Papers of James Boswell were established in 1949 to publish the papers in two separate editions, a popular series devoted to Boswell’s voluminous private journals and a comprehensive scholarly Research Edition comprising the correspondence and the manuscript of the Life of Johnson as well as the journals. The first volume of the trade edition, the London Journal 1762–1763, appeared in 1950 and, surprising both its publishers at McGraw-Hill and Heinemann and its scholarly editors, became an immediate worldwide bestseller. The publication of the popular series was completed in 1989 with Boswell the Great Biographer, 1789–1795, the thirteenth volume of the journals. Boswell’s frank record of this private and public life—he was a forthright about his wretched behavior as he was matter-of-fact in reporting his more admirable moments—has repelled some readers and attracted others, but rarely has it elicited indifference.
To date, nine volumes in the Correspondence series have appeared , most recently, The General Correspondence of James Boswell, 1757-1763, edited by David Hankins and James J. Caudle (2006). The second volume in the Correspondence series, The Correspondence and Other Papers of James Boswell Relating to the Making of the ‘Life of Johnson’, edited by Marshall Waingrow, appeared in a second edition, Corrected and Enlarged, in 2001. The first in the Research Series of journals is James Boswell: The Journal of his German and Swiss Travels, 1764, edited by Marlies K. Danziger, was published in 2008. The Catalogue of the Papers of James Boswell at Yale, by Marion S. Pottle, Claude Colleer Abbott, and Frederick A. Pottle, was published in three volumes in 1993. In 2019, with the appearance of James Boswell’s Life of Johnson: an Edition of the Original Manuscript in Four Volumes, vol. 4: 1780-1784, edited by Thomas F. Bonnell, the project brought to completion one of its most significant sub-series, the genetic transcription of the original manuscripts of Boswell’s biographical masterwork .
Research proceeds on several assigned volumes, and the editions in this series continue to attract serious and admiring scholarly attention, consulted and cited by scholars in a wide array of humanistic fields of study. The editions’ General Editor is Gordon Turnbull. Copy is prepared in publication-ready form in the Yale Boswell offices in Sterling Memorial Library by Andrew S. Heisel, continuing in the role which had been long held by Mark Spicer. The volumes are co-published by Edinburgh University Press and Yale University Press.