Boswell First Meets Dr Johnson
Boswell and the subject of his great biography, Dr Johnson, first met by chance on May 16 1763, though Boswell had wished to meet the eminent lexicographer and wit during a previous visit to London. Fittingly the place of their chance encounter was a bookshop, that belonging to Johnson’s friend Thomas Davies on Russell Street near Covent Garden.
The two men were chalk and cheese: Boswell was just 22, from a privileged background and Scottish to boot, a race towards which Johnson seemingly bore ill-will; Johnson was 54, once poor enough to have been forced to walk to London from his native Lichfield when he and his pupil David Garrick sought their fortunes in the capital. Thanks to Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson , LL.D we know that during their first encounter Johnson chided Boswell about his nationality and for an unwise comment about Garrick ; but very soon they had become firm friends.
Were it not for Boswell’s biography of Johnson, and before it was written his copious note taking whenever they talked or others talked of him, Johnson would be a more obscure figure, perhaps a footnote in our literary history. And the depth of that biography, and its detail, set a new path for such works in English, towards recording and understanding a human being, albeit with careful editing of certain sayings and occasions.
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