on June 23, 1999
Needless to say, Boswell's LIFE OF JOHNSON is one of the preeminent works of biography and should be read by anyone interested in Johnson or the genre. It is a great book (also great is W. Jackson Bate's SAMUEL JOHNSON [1st published 1975]which is a MUST for anyone interested in Johnson). But although I love the Everyman's Library, I do not recommend this edition of Boswell. Unlike the usual quality of the Everyman's Library, its Boswell is rife with typographical errors (there's even missing text!). Though it's the only edition of Boswell I've read, I regret that a correct edition is not on my bookshelf. That being said, if this is the only affordable hardcover version you can find -- and you buy only hardcovers -- go ahead and purchase the Everyman's despite the numerous and distracting errors.
on January 11, 2002
I liked this but prefer the unabridged edition published by Oxford University Press (in their Oxford World's Classics series). If you're willing to read Boswell, spend a few dollars more for the OUP edition.
on December 3, 2007
Note: I made some immature Mormon angry because of my negative reviews of books that attempted to prove the Book of Mormon, and that person has been slamming my reviews almost as fast as they are posted.
I must have really burned him or her because I've deleted this review and re-posted it and within an hour, I had a "not helpful" vote. Give me a break. That person's faith must be very fragile, indeed. Oh, well.
I'm trying to be "helpful," and you can see that it took some work to put this review together.
So, your "helpful" votes are appreciated. Thanks, and I hope you find some enjoyable quotations (below) from Boswell's wonderful book, but first a little history.
Samuel Johnson, the irascible but generous lexicographer of the eighteenth century, is mostly remembered because of Boswell, and Boswell is remembered because he wrote Johnson's biography.
At the time, Johnson was already famous for his "Dictionary of the English Language," an impressive work for the year 1755. Among many other writings, Johnson put out an edition of Shakespeare's works (1765), with valuable notes that are still referred to today.
Johnson published a "series of grave and moral discourses" in the periodical called the Rambler, but when it was translated into Italian, it came out as the ludicrous "El Vagabondo," something far from Johnson's pious intentions. And of good intentions, it was Johnson who said, "Sir, Hell is paved with good intentions."
"(Johnson's) defense of tea against Mr. Jonas Hanway's violent attack upon that elegant and popular beverage, shows how very well a man of genius can write upon the slightest subject, when he writes, as the Italians say, con amore."
Johnson despised Americans and was prejudiced against Scotland. He said, "Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel."
Johnson was a male chauvinist. Yet, he was "a king of men." He was a "robust genius, born to grapple with whole libraries," and although "indolence and procrastination were inherent in his constitution, whenever he made an exertion he did more than any one else."
As a person who is afraid of death in the normal sense, I was surprised that in spite of being very religious, Johnson had an extreme fear of death. "'The better a man is, the more afraid he is of death, having a clearer view of infinite purity.' Said Boswell, "Johnson owned, that our being in an unhappy uncertainty as to our salvation, was mysterious; and said, 'Ah! We must wait till we are in another state of being, to have many things explained to us.' Even the powerful mind of Johnson seemed foiled by futurity."
Boswell's commentary brings to mind a story told by St. Augustine in his monumental City of God. A philosopher was abroad a ship captained by a bad man, and after a violent storm, the fearless captain jeered the philosopher for his terror. Said the philosopher, quoting from a similar incident that occurred to the pagan Aristippus, 'A rogue need not worry about losing his worthless life, but Aristippus has a duty to care for a life like his."
"Johnson knew more books than any man alive. He had a peculiar facility in seizing at once what was valuable in any book, without submitting to the labour of perusing it from beginning to end." But he also held that it was important to "read diligently the great book of mankind."
"Why, Sir, I am a man of the world. I live in the world, and I take, in some degree, the color of the world as it moves along."
Johnson was also the one who said, "When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully."
"I love Blair's Sermons," Johnson said. "Though the dog is a Scotchman, and a Presbyterian, and every thing that he should not be, I was the first to praise them. Such was my candor," he said with a smile."
on August 17, 2000
Almost two years ago, I gave this five stars. On reading much more about Boswell and his procedures, I have to qualify my earlier review. If you want a book about Johnson that tells how one man saw him, then yes, it still merits five stars. If you want a full perspective of Johnson - - as the word biography would imply, I'd downgrade it to three stars. So on balance, four.
There are of course many positives, or I wouldn't have given it 5 stars two years ago. Boswell had a strong talent for recording Johnson's conversations, and they are wonderful. Some of them are down right hilarious! Boswell was also a bit of a dramatist, setting up situations such as Johnson's meeting with Wilkes, placing bets over whether he would challenge Johnson on his habit of hiding orange peels. And Boswell could tell a story very dramatically - - it's his dramatic skills and memory which have been the basis on which his champions have defended him.
However, as a 'biography' this leaves much to be desired. Not just the issue of scope, with some 80% of the pages being on 20 years of Johnson's life. Boswell just wasn't a biographer, his story is too personal, he inadequately integrates important opinions, and he suppresses important information that's inconsistent with his rather simple view of Johnson. As Richard Schwartz has excellently pointed out, Boswell has presented us with an unshaped series of details, where data do not converge to a whole, and remain undigested.
Inaccuracies: Boswell tells us early on that he sometimes scurried across London to verify a date, but he apparently wouldn't consult a perpetual calendar; there are a number of occasions where his dates don't align with the day of week, yet his certainty in dating events make it all sound so true. And there is the famous blooper of his putting Johnson at Oxford for three years, rather than one. The inaccuracies would not be such an issue were it not for the fact that Boswell positions himself as being definitive, and condemns the efforts of John Hawkins and Hester Thrale as being inaccurate. Both of them saw aspects of Johnson whihc Boswell never had the depth to see and understand.
Repositioning: Boswell the story teller shaped events... There is an important event where Johnson meets the King in the King's library. Boswell makes it sound as if the King was completely focused on Johnson, and no one else was there - - as if it was a private audience (yet it certainly wasn't). To read this book, you would think that Boswell was one of the most important people in Johnson's life; while Boswell certainly mattered to Johnson, there are very few descriptions of Johnson's life without Boswell, as if Johnson were more dependent on Boswell than the reverse. But the total number of days they were together was a very small fraction of Johnson's life.
Suppression of details: Boswell is so intent on describing Johnson's devotion to his departed wife, that he never tells us that Johnson had hoped to remarry, or that later in life he made advances to a memebr of his household. Boswell also won't relay lifelong friend Edmund Hector's concern that at one point Johnson was so depressed that Hector feared it might shorten his life. These details don't fit Boswell's simple view of Johnson - - and when someone like Anna Seward would send him anecdotes with a disturbing tone, Boswell wrote it off to "prejudice." We also know now that Hawkins, who knew Johnson long before Boswell, wrote a bio of Johnson that has been unfairly eclipsed, largely because of Boswell's treatment and Boswell's unquestioned authority.
Even for the years that Boswell -did- know Johnson, his record is far from complete. Johnson recovered from one major period of depression by being immersed in family life with the Thrales, yet Boswell never spent much time at their household, and so never really saw that 'family' side of Johnson.
Should you avoid this like the plague? No, not at all. But the full unabridged edition represents quite a commitment, and you might be better off reading the abridged version, and spending the time saved by reading Bate's biogrpahy, or even Johnson's own writings.
(In writing this review, I've been very influenced by various books & articles by Donald Greene & Richard Schwartz; I've also tried to be sensitive to the defenses of such Boswell defenders as Frederick Pottle.)
on August 16, 2007
'No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money,' Samuel Johnson.
Sorry, it is a hobby.
Samuel Johnson the writer of the first comprehensive dictionary of the English language, which was a very big deal in his day as the elite felt the English language was in decline due to it being influenced by so many foreign influences and the marvel of Samuel Johnson's efforts and method of writing made him, according to Lord Chesterfield Lord Chesterfield's Letters (Oxford World's Classics), as someone to be deferred to as the "Caesar" of the English language. Samuel Johnson, along with his friend and former pupil David Garrick, helped place Shakespeare as the permanent king of the English language; further, Johnson was a great and singular essayist and has an eternal place as a minor poet of the English language. His dictionary shot Johnson into the inner circle of elite in English society.
Boswell's "Life of Samuel Johnson" is a fascinating read as Boswell traces Johnson's life story. Samuel Johnson and Edmund Burke, a friend of his, and together the center of English political and cultural life with the 'Literary Club' that they had both started were big players in forming the English reaction to the major liberal events going on in their day and could be said to be the fathers of modern conservatism. They were alive to face the genesis of modern liberalism, in the form of Jean Jacque Rousseau along with the American Revolution, theirs was the conservative response. 'What hypocrites are the drivers of negroes to be demanding liberty,' Johnson in reference to the Americans. (It is funny that Samuel Johnson was against slavery while the more liberal Boswell was for it). Although, I know Edmund Burke felt England to be in the reconcilable wrong with the American Revolution Edmund Burke's Speech on conciliation with the American colonies,: Delivered in the House of commons, March 22, 1775; ed., with notes and a study plan ... I. Crane (Twentieth century text-books) the Doctor, Samuel Johnson, did not and felt the Revolutionaries hypocritical ingrates. What is good about conservatism lays with these two fellows, Burke and Johnson. It is also amusing that Johnson's conservativism included the observation that countries should be judged by the condition in which their poor lived, disapprobation given to the worse.
Samuel Johnson came from very humble roots and his early life was spent in modest means, fortunately he was surrounded by books. His first years in London were quite a struggle, near pennyless, sometimes sleeping on the streets. The money he ended up getting for writing the dictionary wasn't much in the end, it was the fame that got him some wealth.
A marvelous read. Giving advice about the legal profession, education: his advice - just do it; habits form early and habits are hard to break... lots of interesting views from how to conduct oneself socially (Boswell seemed in constant search of this) to political commentary (one of my favorite was his advice on being weary of those that wrap themselves in the flag)... too much to write about. Boswell, when he first meets Johnson is so filled with awe and reverance but it mellows out some, he even starts playing games with the Doctor; however, he always greatly respects him but the idolitry disipates.
Although Samuel Johnson's conservativeness and strong opinions might turn people off I find it refreshing compared to the stealth tactics of politics today. Politicians don't say what they mean and that is also probably why the Doctor was discouraged from entering politics in his day by some close friends with ties in that area, somethings change only by degree. James Boswell, the author, didn't agree with the Doctor all the time but appreciated the hard, realistic way of looking at things and amusingly delivered (mostly by quirky analogies) that Samuel Johnson did.
Then Boswell is a story in himself. Boswell's Rousseau-ist fever for the notions of the 'Noble Savage, Natural Man' The Noble Savage: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1754-1762 was interesting also; his generation caught it and he had strong sentiments towards it despite Johnson's arguments against its reasoning. This fever also, at the least, lent cover to the American Revolution.
Johnson could only afford one year of college. Received an honarary Doctorate for his dictionary.
One of the books one should read before they turn 20.
The best synopsis of Rousseau and in his own words is probably 'Creed of a Priest of Savoy' The Essential Rousseau (Essentials)
on February 27, 2014
Why should you spend the time and money to read this huge biography which is over twelve hundred densely written pages?
1. James Boswell (1740-96) a wealthy Scottish lawyer wrote this immense work which is filled with countless anecdotes about Dr Johnson (1709-84) and his friends making the age in which they lived come alive in the minds of readers. If you want a portrait of eighteenth century Great Britain and the literary scene at that time you can turn to no better tome.
2. The book tells a rags to riches Horatio Alger story of a great literary genius. Johnson was near sighted, heavyset and resembled a bear in his demeanor. He could be rough, coarse, sarcastic and was a master of conversational repartee and bon mots. He was also a devoted Christian believer who could be very kind and loving to family and his wide circle of friends. Johnson was the author of such monumental works as his "Dictionary of the English Language"; "The Vanity of Human Wishes"; "Rasselas" and countless essays culled from the pages of "The Rambler" newspaper and other publications of the day.
3. The book is filled with stories about Johnson's distinguished friends from the world of politics, business, farming and art. He was a close friend of Dr. Oliver Goldsmith the author of "The Vicar of Wakefield" and other works, Joshua Reynolds the famous painter and David Garrick the famous Shakespearean actor.
4. The book has wonderful advice on how to live a Christian life of morality and honor. Johnson was a good though far from perfect man. He did not drink but loved lavish meals and luxury. Johnson was faithful to his wife but adored the company of lovely women. He was a strong monarchist who had a famous meeting with King George III. Johnson was opposed to the American Revolution. Unlike his friend Boswell he was a strong enemy towards the slave trade.. He professed a dislike of Scotland but had many Scottish friends including James Boswell his biographer. Johnson had a strong fear of death. Dr. Johnson was plagued by ill health throughout his long and productive life of literary endeavor. Johnson wished he had become a lawyer but was one of England's greatest authors of all time,
5. The biography gives us a travelogue account of many of the places visited by Dr. Johnson . Johnson and his friends the Thrales visited the France of Louis XVI and he and Boswell traveled to the Hebrides islands..
Caveats? This is not an easy book to read! There are long footnotes on many pages; Latin and Greek quotations in the original tongues and some pages are downright dull! The work contains many letters from Johnson, Boswell and others which provide fascinating reading. Some readers will have trouble with the formal language of the work filled with classical quotes from ancient authors and referring to current plays and political controversies. This reviewer found this material to be worthy of being read.
6, The book is a treasure trove of pungent and succinct quotations being used with profit by writers and orators. The book has good through countless editions since first published in the 1790s.
The book is a reading essential for anyone who enjoys the story of a wonderful man and his rise to the top. James Boswell is the greatest of all biographers in the English tongue. This book is an essential classic even in our twenty first century world. Essential and enjoyable! Highly recommended!
on March 30, 2004
Charged with everything from homosexuality to hatred of his subject, Boswell gives us a great gift in this monumental work. What must be the greatest document of a friendship besides being a fine piece of biography and an important resource for social historians, The Life of Johnson should not be missed by any student of eighteenth-century English literature. Other than Johnson's literary opinions, you can learn about his days's thoughts on anxiety and religious doubts. So turn your TV off for a month and read a great book and become acquainted with some truly interesting and intellectual people.
on December 26, 2001
Typically, I have a bias against abridged editions of literary works. Nevertheless, prudent editing and abridgement enhances the casual reader's appreciation of this literary tome. Undergraduates working a required reading list for English Lit classes are on their own. Anyway, Samuel Johnson was a noted author and editor of the 18th century English literary scene. Instead of an exhaustive study of Johnson's life as author and editor, biographer Boswell compiled a series of anecdotes, quotations, and correspondence that is held together by his friendship with Johnson. Boswell's purpose was to capture the essence of the man. Johnson was adept at articulating pithy remarks with surgical precision. For example, "...a woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hinder legs. It is not done well; but you are surprized to find it done at all." The 18th century spellings, etc. remain intact. We have Johnson to thank for the familiar "...hell is paved with good intentions," and "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel." Boswell takes care to portray Johnson as sexually moral. After the death of his wife, Johnson (according to Boswell) was apparently celibate. Johnson rebuffed "women of the town," and said he wasn't interested in their carnal delights. Johnson told David Garrick, the actor, that he would not go backstage at the theater because "the white bubbies and silk stockings of your Actresses excite my genitals." As an interesting aside, the editor's introduction speculates that Johnson's relationship with the widow Thrale may have been sexual, with bondage overtones. Who knows? The description of London coffeehouses, theaters, and gathering places are heavy with 18th century atmosphere. Bottom line, reading this book is interesting as a curiosity. Its relevance for 21st century readers may seem limited, but don't let that stop you from sampling the fare. ;-)
on June 6, 2007
I own the Penguins Classics edition but no matter. The story is wonderfully rich. Boswell really is a master story teller because at no point did the story become dry. I literally read and savored every single word.
All I knew of Johnson is that he wrote the first English Dictionary. But I had no idea this man was full of wit. He had a temper no doubt and definitely went through periods of what sound like moderate to severe depression followed by periods of bursting with energy, joy and wit and incredibly prolific and productive in those bursts, enough so that he surprised most people with his abilities in those bursts of creative genius. I am biased as I am a psychiatric physician but it sound like bipolar disorder to me.
Whatever the case may be, I drank this book up. I'm still reading it, have about 40 pages left and haven't put it down since I picked it up.
A must read just because of the sheer wonderful story contained within!
on April 20, 2010
James Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson is often called the greatest biography of all-time and may well be. Perhaps such a work can get no higher praise, but it is also highly notable as the first true modern biography - the first really resembling what we think of as biography today. Boswell set new standards for thoroughness, accuracy, and research, greatly expanding the very concept of what a biography could be. He was also very far ahead of his time in anticipating what was later called gonzo journalism - writers inserting themselves into real-life stories; it is of course not done in the same way as later writers, but the concept is similar. Most remarkable of all, though, is that the book is immensely readable, entertaining, and edifying over two hundred years later, which can be said of very few biographies. It is absolutely essential for anyone even remotely interested in Johnson, Boswell, or the late eighteenth century European intellectual circle.
Johnson was perhaps England's best known writer during his last several decades and one of the most famous in the world besides being widely known and renowned for lexicographical and other accomplishments. However, this book's greatness and fame are such that he has long been known primarily via it. Many read it who have read very little or none of him, showing that, unlike nearly all biographies, it has earned a life of its own. There are many reasons for this, not least the fine writing. Even more fundamental is that the book vividly brings an exciting, integral, and profoundly influential era to life. It covers the late Enlightenment when many of the most important people to ever live were prominent. In addition to Johnson, we get first-hand glimpses of such illustrious personages as Adam Smith, Oliver Goldsmith, Pasquale Paoli, David Garrick, and many, many others. Numerous other heavyweights - Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, King George III, etc. - are only slightly in the background. We also get contemporaneous accounts of major events like the American Revolution and the lead up to the French Revolution. In short, though ostensibly the biography of one person, the book is as vibrant, lifelike, and memorable an account of a supremely important era as any history book.
Yet Johnson is always the focus, shown literally from birth to death. Anyone interested in him will find a wealth of information about all aspects of his life as well as his thoughts, feelings, influences, intellectual background, and far more. There is also a great deal of information about his work. Unlike nearly all biographers, Boswell actually knew Johnson well; he was his friend for many years and spent several months annually in his company, essentially interviewing him and making voluminous notes of his conversation. This last is indeed the book's heart and by far its most famous element. Johnson was perhaps his era's most famous conversationalist, revered for wit and argument; Boswell heard many hours of his conversation and reports faithfully. His style here was again innovative. Rather than sprinkling isolated quotes anecdotally, he went to great pains to reproduce full conversations, not only describing the setting and others present but even using drama-like name headings for full verisimilitude. We thus not only see what Johnson said but where, how, and usually why he said it. Many world famous Johnson sayings that would otherwise be lost - i.e., "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel" - are immortalized here, as well as some quotes by others. This alone would make the book of great value.
Much has been made of how Boswell's presence affected this; knowing he would write the biography, or at least thinking it possible, he undoubtedly orchestrated much, drawing Johnson out when he might have otherwise been silent. Much of this would have been done in any case as he clearly admired Johnson and loved his talk, but there is no denying the question's importance. Some have condemned Boswell as a shameless celebrity whore or otherwise questioned his motives and veracity, but nearly everyone will consider this nitpicking, fascinating as the question is. For nearly everyone, it makes the book better - far more personal and engaging than biographies are usually even capable of being. Also, for what it is worth, such things mean the book in many ways tells us nearly as much about Boswell as Johnson, making it a sort of hybrid biography/autobiography.
Boswell understandably focuses on the years he knew Johnson, meaning the book is greatly lopsided in favor of the later years after Johnson became famous and nearly all his major work was done. This will annoy those who want a more balanced overview, especially as Boswell makes short shrift of some important early events. Those wanting a more conventional balance should get one of several later biographies, especially as Boswell makes a few errors and, at least according to later sources, leaves out some highly interesting - if not necessarily essential - facts. He openly admits doing so at the start in order to protect Johnson's reputation, though much of what he says elsewhere is unflattering, but some of it may have been unknown to him. For most, though, this is the only Johnson biography that will ever be needed - and its greatness, influence, and importance are such that it is required for all readers with even the slightest interest in English and European literature and history and the art of biography even if they care little or nothing for Johnson or Boswell.
As for this edition, it has a wealth of supplemental material, making it ideal for serious readers. An excellent, lengthy introduction gives substantial background on Johnson, Boswell, and the book plus some critical insight. There is also a worthwhile bibliography, a chronology, and a supremely useful index. As with other Everyman hardbacks, the book itself is also very high quality - clothbound with very strong binding and even a built-in bookmark. This is one of the best versions available.