James Boswell is born on this day in Edinburgh to an ancient Scottish family. His father was a judge, the Lord of Auchinleck, and Boswell was heir to the title and a large fortune. He studied at the University of Edinburgh but ran away to London and was brought back by his family, who forced him to study law under close watch at home. He later studied law in Holland, then toured Germany, Italy, and France.
On his tour, he met Rousseau, Voltaire, and a prominent Corsican general leading the island in revolt against Genoa. Boswell took careful notes after his meetings and later used his detailed diaries to create vivid profiles of these famous personalities. In 1768, he published An Account of Corsica, which was translated into four languages and made him famous across Europe. Meanwhile, at age 23, in 1763, he had met the prominent man of letters Samuel Johnson, who had written A Dictionary of the English Languages (1755). Their friendship lasted until Johnson’s death, and Boswell’s greatest fame came from his study of the man.
In 1769, Boswell established a successful law practice in Edinburgh, which he maintained for 17 years, while continuing to write. He married a cousin and continued his correspondence with Johnson. In 1773, Boswell and Johnson took a tour of the Scottish Highlands and Hebrides. The journey was a great success, and in 1775 Boswell published Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland. During the next decade, he wrote some 70 essays for a London magazine and succeeded his father as Lord of Auchinleck. Four years after Johnson’s death in 1784, Boswell moved to London, where he practiced law, drank heavily, and began writing his masterpiece The Life of Samuel Johnson, which was published in two volumes, the first in 1791, the second in 1793. He was working on a third volume when he died in 1795. Boswell’s lively and colorful chronicles helped familiarized generations of future readers with the literary characters of the late 18th century.