He was born on 29 October 1740 in Edinburgh,
the son of an advocate, Alexander Boswell (1706—82), who was later to become Lord
Auchinleck, a distinguished Lord of Session. He was educated privately in Edinburgh and by a tutor until he was 13, when he matriculated at the University of Edinburgh. While a student he started writing poetry, Augustan pastiches, for the Scots Magazine, and verse writing was to remain an interest throughout his life. The theatre, too, became a passion, and Boswell's interest in it, his first publication, A View of the Edinburgh Theatre was published in 1759, and his tendency to philander led to a breach with his father, culminating in his banishment to Glasgow to study law in 1759.
In the summer of the following year he ran away to London, where he became a Catholic and attempted to find the necessary political patronage to join a guards' regiment, but through his father's influence he returned to Edinburgh to resume his legal studies. During this period he enjoyed the friendship of Lord Kames and Lord Hailes, two leading Edinburgh literati who also became father figures to the young Boswell. He furthered his legal studies in Utrecht and was called to the Scottish Bar in 1766. While in Europe (1763-65) he visited Germany and Italy, and through his persistence engineered visits to Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712—78) and Voltaire (1694-1778), meetings which satisfied both his lifelong need to make the acquaintance of great men and also his genuine intellectual curiosity. In 1759, at the end of his tour, he was in Corsica where he met the patriot Pasquale Paoli and gained the material for his successful book on Corsica's plight, An Account of Corsica (1768).
For 17 years Boswell practised at the Scottish Bar, making frequent visits to London to pursue his literary and political ambitions and to keep up his friendship with Samuel Johnson (1709-84) who helped him in 1773 to join The Club, later The Literary Club. Boswell had first met Johnson on 16 May 1763 in Thomas Davies's Bookshop in Russell Street. and, although he was at first rebuffed by the great English man of letters, Boswell pursued his claim and the two quickly became close acquaintances. Boswell began to keep a journal in 1762 and for the rest of his life he retained an ability to summon up scenes and conversations from his many meetings in London, Edinburgh and Europe, which were to be of use to him in his published writings.
At their best, Boswell's journals and letters to friends such as John Johnston reveal him as an inquisitive, perceptive recorder of the society of his age and a writer of great verbal dexterity; at their worst they betray him to have been a self-centred seeker after personal glory, much given to lascivious behaviour. The combination of those two opposites in his private writing provided most of the material he needed for his two great works, his journal of the tour he made with Johnson through Scotland to the Western Isles in 1773, which came out in 1785 but which was not published in its entirety until 1936, as Boswell's Journal of a Tour to the
Hebrides with Samuel Johnson LL.D. Now First Published from the Original Manuscript, and his Life of Samuel Johnson LL.D. (1791), generally held to be the greatest biography in the English language.
In both books Boswell's power of recall and his vivid narrative present an irresistible picture of Dr Johnson and his social milieu. Although Boswell had courted Johnson's friendship and continued to be jealous of it throughout his life, his portrait is not that of a sycophant and Johnson is presented in all his differing moods and failings. Johnson's visit to Edinburgh in 1773, en route for the Western Isles, was a high point in Boswell's career and one that enabled him to give full vent to his pride in his native country in front of the famous Scotophobe. Boswell was split in his attitudes to Scotland: on the one hand he was fiercely proud of his lineage and of the traditions and history of Scotland, on the other he preferred the metropolitan culture of London to what he saw as the provincial narrowness of Edinburgh, and like many other literati of his generation he was concerned to rid his speech of scoticisms.
His hopes for political advancement in Scotland were dashed by his arguments with the powerful secretary of state Henry Dundas, Viscount Melville, and by his increasingly irresponsible behaviour in public. In 1786 he finally settled in London and attempted, unsuccessfully, to make a living at the English Bar and to prepare his biography of Dr Johnson. He was appointed Recorder of Carlisle in 1788 under the patronage of the Earl of Lonsdale but relinquished the post a year later. The final years of his life were spent in sad dissipation in London where he died on 19 May 1795. Boswell had married his cousin Margaret Montgomerie (d 1789) in November 1769 and they had four children, one of whom, Alexander , became a well known antiquary and songwriter. The recovery of many of Boswell's letters from Malahide Castle in Ireland in 1926, 1937, 1939, and 1948, and from Fettercairn in 1930 has thrown new light on his private life, as well as providing a compelling picture of the age in which he lived, its personalities and manners. Their discovery allowed complete editions of the Tour and the Life to be published (in 1936 and 1934-40).
Works include: A View of the Edinburgh Theatre (1759);
Elegy on the Death of an Amiable Young Lady (1761);
Ode to Tragedy (1761); The Cub at New-Market (1762);
Critical Strictures on the New Tragedy of Elvira (1763);
Letters between James Boswell and the Hon. Andrew Erskine (1763); Dorando (1767);
The Essence of the Douglas Cause (1767), An Account of Corsica (1768);
ed., British Essays in Favour of the Brave Corsicans (1769);
On the Profession of a Player (1770); Letter to Robert MacQueen, Lord Braxfield (1780);
A Letter to the People of Scotland on the Present State of the Nation (1783);
Ode by Dr Johnson to Mrs Thrale (1784); Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (1785);
A Letter to the People of Scotland on the Alarming Attempt to Infringe the Articles of Union
Conversation between His Most Sacred Majesty George III and Samuel Johnson (1790); the Life of Samuel Johnson LL. D, 2 vols. (1791);
No Abolition of Slavery (1791); Ode to Mr Charles Dilley (1791).