LATE ON A SUNNY AFTERNOON last summer, I visited a deserted churchyard in Auchinleck, a drab little village surrounded by pastureland in Scotland’s western district of East Ayrshire. Many of the weathered gravestones were broken or tilted. Two small buildings stood among them: the old parish church and an unpretentious mausoleum, on the side of which I found a coat of arms with the inscription Vraye Foy, or True Faith. Otherwise, there was nothing—no statue, no plaque, no marker— to indicate that inside lay the remains of James Boswell, the passionate Scotsman who wrote one of the greatest books of all time, the Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. Dr. Johnson, as the brilliant 18th-century critic, author and poet was known, produced a huge body of immensely influential literature, including a dictionary that remained the gold standard of English lexicography for the better part of a century. Eccentric and witty, he was the hub of a glittering circle in London that attracted such luminaries as novelist and playwright Oliver Goldsmith, painter Sir Joshua Reynolds, the actor David Garrick and Boswell himself. Johnson was renowned for his barbed aphorisms, many of which— “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel,” “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money,” “I am willing to love all mankind, except an American”—still circulate.
Boswell, a self-described “gentleman of ancient blood,” was a lawyer and a writer who knew Johnson well for more than 20 years. He was also a kind of genius. His biography of his friend and mentor—published after Johnson’s death—created a sensation. Boswell was determined “to tell the whole truth about his subject, to portray his lapses, his blemishes, and his weaknesses as well as his great qualities,” says Adam Sisman, a winner of the 2001 National Book Critics Circle Award for Boswell’s Presumptuous Task: The Making of the Life of Dr. Johnson. Nowadays we take such candor for granted, “but in Boswell’s time,” Sisman adds, it was “a startling innovation.”
Boswell remains a lively presence on the literary scene. Hardly a week goes by, it seems, without a Boswell sighting somewhere. A New Yorker spoof put Boswell to work on the life of Michael Jackson. (“When a boy, he was already notably fond of other children, and, as you know, he maintained his fondness for them into middle age.”) The New York Times has compared journalist Ron Suskind and biographer A. Scott Berg to Boswell and described Wired magazine as the “Boswell . . . for the geekerati.” The word “Boswell” is even in the dictionary, defined as “one who writes with love and intimate knowledge of any subject.” Two Boswell biographies have come out in the past five years, and a host of scholars, critics and other aficionados have taken to calling themselves “Boswellians.” One of them, Iain Brown, manuscript curator at the National Library of Scotland, hung a portrait of Boswell in his bathroom at home.
My own fascination with Boswell began several years ago, when I bought the Life after reading the introduction at a bookstore. Although I’ve always liked big books, this one was so formidable—1,402 pages—that I decided to try Boswell’s much shorter Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides first, as a sort of warm-up. By the time I finished that exuberant account of a ten-week holiday Boswell and Johnson spent exploring the islands off Scotland’s northwestern coast in 1773, I was hooked. I plunged right into the Life and then tackled Boswell’s other journals—13 volumes, in all.
I was intrigued by Johnson but found Boswell downright enthralling. The astute biographer turned out to be an irresistible character in his own right, a contradictory, needy and sometimes infuriating man who drank too much, talked too much and preserved many of his indiscretions in writing. Among the revelations in his journals: he fathered two illegitimate children before he married, and he remained a compulsive whoremonger throughout his life. He could be a pompous snob or entertain a crowded London theater by imitating a cow. He suffered from debilitating depressions, yet in public was the life of the party. “I admire and like him beyond measure,” declared 20-year-old Charlotte Ann Burney, the sister of the famous diarist Fanny Burney. “He . . . puts himself into such ridiculous postures that he is as good as a comedy.” The philosopher David Hume described him as “very good-humored, very agreeable, and very mad.”
One thing he was not agreeable about was Scotland. Boswell’s feelings about his homeland were deeply conflicted. He abhorred what he perceived as Scotland’s abjectprovincialism. To rid himself of his Scottish accent, he took diction classes from Thomas Sheridan, father of playwright (The School for Scandal) Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Yet Scotland was the place that shaped him. He spent most of his life there and often boasted “of being descended of ancestors who have had an estate for some hundreds of years.”
This is why, when I finished Boswell’s books, I decided to undertake a sort of literary pilgrimage. I wanted to find what remained of Boswell’s Edinburgh, and see Auchinleck, the family estate recently restored from near ruin. I also wanted to visit Boswell’s tomb and pay my respects to the great biographer.
He was born in Edinburgh in 1740. His father, Alexander, a lawyer and later a judge in Scotland’s supreme civil court, was a classical scholar with an unbending sense of propriety that he expected his children to embrace. His mother, Euphemia, was passive and devout, and Boswell was very fond of her. He once recalled that “her notions were pious, visionary and scrupulous. When she was once made to go to the theater, she cried and would never go again.”
Edinburgh, situated on the shore of the Firth (or bay) of Forth, 400 miles north of London, was Scotland’s artistic and social center, and its capital. The nucleus of Boswell’s Edinburgh was a stately avenue now known as the Royal Mile. A boulevard lined by tall, straight-faced stone buildings, it descends from Edinburgh Castle on its cliffside perch to the Palace of Holyroodhouse near the base of the weathered peak called Arthur’s Seat. The castle was the fortress and palace that has dominated Edinburgh since the 16th century. Holyroodhouse had been the home of Scotland’s kings and queens for two centuries until 1707, when the Act of Union made Scotland part of Great Britain.
Clustered around the Royal Mile was a tangled maze of alleys and courtyards, where many of Edinburgh’s 50,000 inhabitants occupied tall tenements called “lands.” The poor lived on the bottom and top floors, the more well-to-do in between. The city, ancient even then (its origins date back to at least the seventh century a.d.), was filthy and smelly. Apall of coal smoke hung over its grimy buildings, and pedestrians had to remain alert for chamber pots being emptied from windows above. The Boswell residence, the fourth floor of a tenement, was just off the Royal Mile near Parliament House, where the Scottish Parliament sat until the Act of Union abolished it.