Hugging Himself

James Boswell (1740-95), whose frank and revealing London Journal sold are than a million copies, is the most "modern" and widely read 18th-century author. His circle of friends—Johnson, Burke, Gibbon, Reynolds, Hume, Goldsmith, Garrick, and Fanny Burney—was the most brilliant in the history of English literature. Cursed with a morbid Calvinistic streak, Boswell had uneasy relations with his austere disapproving father, a high-court judge in Scotland, whom he compared to a cold surgical instrument. A pushy and self-promoting, anxious and ambitious outsider, Boswell nevertheless had a genius for friendship. He successfully courted two notorious intellectual celebrities, Voltaire and Rousseau, whose lives and thought were antithetical to those of his moral hero, Samuel Johnson. Forced by his father into a law career, he lost several clients to the gallows and witnessed their executions. His adventurous trip to the wilds of bandit ridden Corsica, then ruled by Genoa, led to his passionate support for revolutionary hero Pasquale Paoli. Boswell's Account of Corsica established his reputation in Europe and influenced British and French policy toward the island.

Boswell had an intense, volatile relationship with Johnson, who shared his melancholia and was one of the most troubled and fascinating men who ever lived. Boswell's fanatical devotion to his subject (Johnson exclaimed: "You have but two...

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