Samuel Johnson was born in 1709, in Lichfield, England. The son of a bookseller, Johnson briefly attended Pembroke College, Oxford, taught school, worked for a printer, and opened a boarding academy with his wife's money before that failed. Moving to London in 1737, Johnson scratched out a living from writing. He regularly contributed articles and moral essays to journals, including the Gentleman's Magazine, the Adventurer, and the Idler, and became known for his poems and satires in imitation of Juvenal. Between 1750 and 1752, he produced the Rambler almost single-handedly. In 1755 Johnson published Dictionary of the English Language, which secured his place in contemporary literary circles. Johnson wrote Rasselas in a week in 1759, trying to earn money to visit his dying mother. He also wrote a widely-read edition of Shakespeare's plays, as well as Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland and Lives of the Poets. Johnson's writing was so thoughtful, powerful, and influential that he was considered a singular authority on all things literary. His stature attracted the attention of James Boswell, whose biography, Life of Johnson, provides much of what we know about its subject. Johnson died in 1784.
James Boswell was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1740 of an old and honored family. As a young man, Boswell was ambitious to have a literary career but reluctantly obeying the wishes of his father, a Scottish Judge, he followed a career in the law. He was admitted to the Scottish bar in 1766. However, his legal practice did not prevent him from writing a series of periodical essays, The Hypochondriac (1777-83), and his Journal of a Tour of the Hebrides (1785), was an account of the journey to the outer islands of Scotland undertaken with Samuel Johnson in 1773. In addition, Boswell wrote the impulsively frank Journals, private papers lost to history until they were discovered by modern scholars and issued in a multivolume set. Known during much of his life as Corsican Boswell for his authorship of An Account of Corsica in 1768, his first considerable work, Boswell now bears a name that is synonymous with biographer. The reason rests in the achievement of his Life of Samuel Johnson published in 1791, seven years after the death of Johnson. Boswell recorded in his diary the anxiety of the long-awaited encounter with Johnson, on May 16, 1763, in the back parlor of a London bookstore, and upon their first meeting he began collecting Johnson's conversations and opinions. Johnson was a daunting subject for a biographer, in part because of his extraordinary, outsized presence and, in part because Johnson himself was a pioneer in the art of literary biography. Boswell met the challenge by taking an anecdotal, year-by-year approach to the wealth of biographical material he gathered. Boswell died in 1795.
Allan Massie is a novelist, essayist and critic.