The Cub, the Parson, the Doctor: James Boswell, Laurence Sterne, and Samuel Johnson in London


  • Adria Young


Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) was the dominant literary figure of the later eighteenth century. He was most famed in his day as the author of the first comprehensive Dictionary of the English Language, but he would be eventually celebrated in equal measure as a great moral sage, essayist, poet, critic, conversationalist, and the second most quoted person in the English language after Shakespeare. Laurence Sterne (1713-1768) was an Irish-born Anglican clergyman who achieved instant celebrity as the author of one of the most wildly innovative comic novels in English, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Though the novel is now considered a key work in the evolution of the novel and a precursor to postmodernist experiments in self-reflexive writing, not every reader has responded favourably to its dizzying novelties. Samuel Johnson, who likely never met Sterne, notoriously if incorrectly predicted that the novel‘s popularity would fade. James Boswell (1740-1795) also aimed to become a great literary author of the period but his reputation did not fare as well as Johnson‘s or Sterne‘s. A generation after his death, he had come to be seen as a buffoon who had needled his way into the company of the powerful and talented while displaying little talent or with himself. The 19th-century essayist Lord Macaulay pronounced him “one of the smallest men who ever lived [...] a man of the meanest and feeblest intellect [...] shallow and pedantic, a bigot and a sot [...] a common butt in the taverns of London.” Yet Boswell kept meticulous records of his conversations with the eminent writers and thinkers of his age, and from these records were produced not only a remarkable series of journals, unmatched in their detail and directness, but equally one indisputable masterpiece, his Life of Johnson, which is generally regarded as the greatest biography in English.

In this ambitious and exhaustively researched paper, Adria Young gathers pretty much all evidence available (and there‘s not much of it) connecting Sterne to Johnson, with Boswell emerging as a go-between connecting these two very different personalities. But more than showing how their lives may have intersected, Young develops a lively and suggestive argument about how Boswell, always in search of a father-figure, ultimately shed the exuberant Sterne‘s early influence in favour of Johnson‘s sturdier guidance.

-Dr. Trevor Ross