If you walk eastward across London’s Covent Garden (carefully avoiding the fire-eaters, the street mimes, and other performance artists), you will come to a small, neat row of Georgian houses called Russell Street. About thirty yards along Russell Street on the right-hand side, above a modern Italian coffeehouse, you can see a round blue plaque up on the first-floor brickwork. It is half obscured by a homely window box of dusty red geraniums. This modest site is, arguably, the sacred birthplace of modern English biography.
The blue plaque quietly announces that this was once Thomas Davies’s bookshop. Here, on Monday, May 16, 1763, in a small back parlor behind a glass door, the twenty-two-year-old James Boswell first met the fifty-three-year-old Dr. Samuel Johnson. The scene is one of the most justly famous in Boswell’s great Life of Johnson. Here is how it begins:
…Johnson unexpectedly came into the shop; and Mr. Davies having perceived him through the glass-door in the room in which we were sitting, advancing toward us,—he announced his awful approach to me, somewhat in the manner of the actor in the part of Horatio, when he addresses Hamlet on the appearance of his father’s ghost, “Look, my Lord, it comes.” I found that I had a very perfect idea of Johnson’s figure, from the portrait painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds soon after he published his Dictionary, in the attitude of sitting in his easy chair in deep meditation…. Mr. Davies mentioned my name, and respectfully introduced me to him, I was much agitated; and recollecting his prejudice against the Scotch, of which I had heard much, I said to Davies, “Don’t tell him where I come from.”
So Johnson seizes his cue, “tosses and gores” Boswell for his Scottishness (the first of many such maulings), and the great friendship is launched. The vividness of this tiny scene, its convincing dramatization, its sudden humor, its intimacy, and its brilliant psychological touches (such as the idea that Johnson might prove to be Boswell’s father’s ghost) are all characteristic of the book’s genius.
Boswell’s biography has never been out of print since 1791, and it is still generally admired as the founding text, the Old Testament, of the modern genre of life-writing. Its shortcomings are widely known, but generally accepted. Boswell knew little of Johnson’s early years in London, in the late 1730s and 1740s, when he associated with Richard Savage, wrote much of his poetry, frequented the theaters and the House of Commons as a journalist. In fact less than a tenth of the Life is dedicated to these first, checkered forty years of Johnson’s career, up to the time he began the Rambler essays.
Boswell’s intimacy with Johnson was largely based (apart from the extended Hebrides Tour) on a series of annual summer visits from Scotland, starting in 1766. These rarely lasted more than a couple of months at a time. (Indeed it has …