The Life of Samuel Johnson: a revolutionary approach to biographical writing
You may think that the biographical genre of literature is something relatively new, but, in fact, The Life of Samuel Johnson, written by James Boswell and published in 1791, is considered one of the earliest and most significant modern biographies.
The reason for its significance is that it was the first of its kind to adopt a new biographical approach, as Boswell's style was "very modern", giving a psychological insight into "what made Johnson tick".
This differed from early biographical writing, such as the literature of ancient Greece and Rome that was characterised by a reverence for both their deities and renowned individuals. Whether victorious or defeated, the actions of these figures were regarded as either emulable or cautionary and the biographical writing served as an analysis of this.
Another example of early biographical writing is Einhard’s The Life of Charlemagne, composed around 817 AD, which is widely regarded as one of the era’s most illustrious biographies. Though Einhard is clearly enamoured with Charlemagne's accomplishments, the biography solely focused on these accomplishments rather than providing personal insight. Despite this, Einhard’s work has retained its value for historians over the centuries.
The Life of Samuel Johnson
The work is a comprehensive account of the life and times of Samuel Johnson, one of the greatest literary figures of the 18th century. The biography is famous for its detailed and intimate portrayal of Johnson's personality and for its contribution to the art of biography as a literary genre.
James Boswell, a Scottish lawyer and writer, met Samuel Johnson in 1763 and was immediately captivated by his intelligence, wit, and charm. Boswell became a close friend and admirer of Johnson, and he began to record his conversations and observations about Johnson's life and character. Over the years, Boswell amassed a vast collection of notes, letters, and anecdotes about Johnson, and he eventually decided to publish a comprehensive biography of his friend.
The Life of Samuel Johnson is divided into two volumes, each containing detailed descriptions of Johnson's life and works. The first volume covers Johnson's early life, his struggles with poverty and illness, and his rise to fame as a writer and scholar. The second volume focuses on Johnson's later years, his relationships with his friends and family, and his thoughts on politics, religion, and philosophy.
What makes The Life of Samuel Johnson so significant is the way in which Boswell approaches his subject. Unlike previous biographies, which tended to focus on the external events of a person's life, Boswell's biography is concerned with the inner life of Johnson. Boswell is interested in Johnson's thoughts, feelings, and motivations, and he seeks to understand Johnson's complex personality in all its nuances.
Boswell's approach to biography was groundbreaking in its time, and it set the standard for modern biographical writing. Rather than simply recounting the facts of a person's life, Boswell sought to create a vivid and engaging portrait of his subject, bringing to life the unique qualities that made Johnson such a remarkable figure. In doing so, Boswell demonstrated the power of biography as a literary genre, and he set a new standard for the art of storytelling.
Today, The Life of Samuel Johnson is regarded as a classic of English literature and a masterpiece of biography. It remains one of the most vivid and compelling portraits of a literary figure ever written, and it has inspired generations of writers and readers to explore the lives and works of great men and women. Through his meticulous research, his keen insight into human nature, and his masterful storytelling, James Boswell created a work that continues to fascinate and captivate readers to this day.
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