New Light on the Early Publication History of Boswell’s Life of JohnsonThe 2024 Kenneth Karmiole Endowed Lecture on the History of the Book Trades

Date: 10 July 2024
Time: 5:30 p.m.
Location: UVA Special Collections
Lecturer: Richard B. Sher - Distinguished Professor of History Emeritus, New Jersey Institute of Technology and Rutgers University, Newark

The Life of Samuel Johnson is often considered the greatest biography ever written. Although Boswell’s book has received much scholarly attention since it first appeared in two large quarto volumes in 1791, one topic has been curiously neglected: the story of how Boswell’s book was printed, published, and reprinted in the first, second, and third editions—the only editions to which Boswell himself contributed. This neglect is all the more curious because of the unusually rich manuscript materials that exist about this subject among the Boswell Papers in the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University, in the National Library of Scotland, and elsewhere. Drawing on these little-known materials, as well as other sources, this talk shows that—although one would not guess it from the title page—Boswell’s great book was actually self-published, and its success owed much to a devoted support network of printers, booksellers, newspaper and magazine editors, and friends. Although the muddled second edition (1793) suffered from Boswell’s increasing dysfunction in the years before his death in 1795, the resilient Boswellian network subsequently secured the book’s exalted reputation.