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The Life of Samuel Johnson (Penguin Classics) Paperback – Abridged, August 30, 1979


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James Boswell is for some the ideal scribe, for others a sycophantic toady. Edmund Wilson memorably labeled him "a vain and pushing diarist." Boswell can even be seen as someone unconsciously intent on undermining his idol in sonorous, balanced sentences. Early on in his massive Life, he puts all manner of ideas into our heads with his boobish attempts to clear the youthful Johnson of potential impropriety: "His juvenile attachments to the fair sex were, however, very transient; and it is certain that he formed no criminal connection whatsoever." And while it's often tempting to ignore Boswell's more personal intrusions and delight solely in the melancholic master's words and deeds, there are delightful admissions as, "I was at this time so occupied, shall I call it? or so dissipated, by the amusements of London that our next meeting was not till Saturday, June 25..."

Samuel Johnson was born in 1709 and died in 1784--a long life, though one marred by depression and fear of death. On April 20, 1764, for example, he declared, "I would consent to have a limb amputated to recover my spirits." Many of the quotes Boswell includes are a sort of greatest hits: Johnson's definitions of oats and lexicographer, his love for his cat Hodge, as well as thousands of bon, and mal, mots. ("Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel"; "Sir, 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.") But there are also many unfamiliar pleasures--Boswell's accounts of Johnson's literary industry, including the Dictionary, The Rambler and Lives of the Poets; Johnson's singular loathing for Scotland and France; and the surprising hints of revelry. Awakened at 3 AM by friends, he greets them with, "What, is it you, you dogs! I'll have a frisk with you." This at age 42. Johnson's final years were marked by pain and loneliness but certainly no loss of wit.

About the Author

James Boswell (1740-1795) was a lawyer, diarist, and author born in Edinburgh. He is best known as the biographer of Samuel Johnson. Boswell is known for taking voracious notes on the grand tour of Europe that he took as a young nobleman and, subsequently, of his tour to Scotland with Johnson. He also recorded meetings and conversations with eminent individuals belonging to 'The Club', including David Garrick, Edmund Burke, Joshua Reynolds and Oliver Goldsmith. Samuel Johnson was born in Lichfield in 1709 and was educated at Lichfield Grammar School and, for a short time, at Pembroke College, Oxford. In 1735 he married Elizabeth Jervis Porter and in 1737 moved to London. There, he became a regular contributor to the Gentleman's Magazine, but struggled to earn a living from writing. His London: A Poem in Imitation of the Third Satire of Juvenal was published anonymously in 1738 and attracted some attention. From 1750 to 1752 he issued the Rambler, a periodical written almost entirely by himself, and consolidated his position as a notable moral essayist with some twenty-five essays in the Adventurer. When his Dictionary of the English Language was published in 1755, Johnson took on the proportions of a literary monarch in the London of his day. In need of money to visit his sick mother, he wrote Rasselas (1759) reportedly in the evenings of one week, finishing a couple of days after his mother's death. In 1763 Boswell became his faithful follower and it is mainly due to him that we owe our intimate knowledge of Johnson. Johnson's last major work was Lives of the Poets. He died in December 1784. David Womersley is the Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford. He has published widely on English literature from the Renaissance to the early nineteenth century. For Penguin he has edited Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Augustan Critical Writing, Burke's Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful and Other Pre-Revolutionary Writings, and Samuel Johnson's Selected Essays.
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Product Details

  • Series: Penguin Classics
  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Classics; Abridged edition (August 30, 1979)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140431160
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140431162
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 1 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #562,010 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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38 of 40 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on June 23, 1999
Format: Hardcover
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.
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39 of 42 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on January 11, 2002
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
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.
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69 of 83 people found the following review helpful By Frank Lynch on August 17, 2000
Format: Paperback
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.
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Wanderer on December 3, 2007
Format: Paperback
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.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Neri on August 16, 2007
Format: Hardcover
'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.
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