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.

Document your life story with us

At My Story Told, our aim is to tell your story, your way. We help individuals preserve their life stories in the form of the written word, a family treasure to be handed down to generations that will both preserve your legacy and offer a unique insight into what life was like during your lifetime.

Contact us today to start your storytelling journey, or for more on how our process works, click here.

The idea of six degrees of separation, also known as the six handshakes rule, suggests that anyone on the planet can be linked to anyone else in just six steps. Through this chain of connections, you can be linked to the Queen, Leonardo Dicaprio or even a Somalian sheep herder. 

According to the theory, every person in the world knows around 100 people through being friends, family, acquaintances or co-workers. As each person also knows 100 others, the number of people connected in just the second link of the chain increases to 10,000. By the sixth link of the chain, you could connect 1,000,000,000,000 people (one trillion) people – a number that far exceeds the total population of the planet.  


In the 1960s, psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment to research how closely connected people can be without realising it. He sent a letter to 160 people in Nebraska with one stockbroker’s name and address, and asked each person to write their name on the letter and send it on to someone who might get that letter one step closer to the stockbroker in Boston.   

Each person added their name then forwarded the letter on until it reached its final destination, showing Milgram that it only took five or six people to link one person to another. This created the concept of six degrees of separation. 


Furthermore, through this experiment Milgram found out that half of the letters that were given to the stockbroker were delivered by the same three people. Although the experiment proved the six degrees of separation theory, it also showed how a small group of individuals are connected to a disproportionately large number of people.  

These people are called connectors: individuals that seem to know everyone and are extremely sociable. They have an ability to connect with a large number of friends but also acquaintances, with different social circles and communities.  

Your Connections, Your Story 

With the technology of social media and the Internet, it’s not only easier to be able to visualise these links but also the ability to stay in contact with your friends and family. 

When writing your autobiography, you can consider your own individual unique group of at least 100 people you know. This theory puts fate into perspective: how amazing it is to link with people through family, friends or acquaintances so that they become part of your life, and of your story.