In the preface to his 1887 edition of Boswell’s Life of Johnson (including his Journal of a Tour of the Hebrides and Johnson’s Diary of a Journey into North Wales), George Birkbeck Hill laments how intervals of time and distance complicated his task of reviving Johnson, England’s greatest eighteenth century man of letters, for a new generation of readers: “I have sought to follow him wherever a remark of his required illustration, and have read through many a book that I might trace to its source a reference or an allusion.” Birkbeck Hill’s copious footnotes helped to restore topical immediacy to the Boswell’s text; they were regarded as the edition’s “chief glory” by L. F. Powell in his revised and enlarged edition of 1934.
Imagine now a copy of this edition that has been extra-illustrated with a few thousand engraved portraits, views, maps, and ephemera related to Johnson and his times. Imagine turning its pages and encountering hundreds of autograph letters of Johnson’s contemporaries and other literary and historical figures alluded to in the Life—from Jane Austen to Jonathan Swift. The original six-volume edition thus swelled to fill 32 sturdy volumes, its pages inlaid on larger sheets to accommodate the widest range of extra-illustrative content. This unique copy of the Life of Johnson was commissioned by Robert Borthwick Adam of Buffalo, New York, a great collector of Johnsoniana, who had the set richly bound by the Club Bindery in New York. It now resides in the Donald and Mary Hyde Collection of Dr. Samuel Johnson at Houghton Library. A major effort is underway currently to digitize the contents of this extraordinary resource. Cataloged as MS Hyde 76, a 718-page finding aid is available to browse or search for the added material. Click on the Digital Material tab to see the volumes that have been digitized to date.
Thanks to Peter Accardo, Programs and Public Service Librarian, for contributing this post. Houghton From Home is a series of posts highlighting our digitized collections. For more items from across the Harvard Library, visit Harvard Digital Collections.