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Samuel Johnson: A Biography Hardcover – September 18, 2008


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 640 pages
  • Publisher: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press; First Edition edition (September 18, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674031601
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674031609
  • Product Dimensions: 9.7 x 6.1 x 1.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,168,229 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Famed for his dictionary, Rambler essays and The Lives of the English Poets, Samuel Johnson (1709–1784) remains one of the most-quoted and carefully observed authors who ever lived. On the occasion of Johnson's tercentenary, Martin (A Life of James Boswell) searches out the psychological elements covered up by Boswell and others: the immense insecurities, bouts of deep depression, corrosive self-doubt and, in his last days, despair for his very soul. He grew up the illness-wracked, nearly blind son of a backwater bookseller. Martin shows how Johnson's distant relationships with his family came to haunt him on the death of each member. Likewise, Johnson's strange mannerisms and disfigurement, marriage to a woman twice his age and poverty early in his career further shaped his psyche. Through all this, Martin says, Johnson was also a bit of a ladies' man, and notes in Johnson's journal references to the practice or condition of M., which, Martin speculates, stands for masturbation or defecation. Martin admirably succeeds in giving a new generation Dr. Johnson, warts and all, from the inside, though in prose that remains only serviceable. 30 b&w illus., map. (Sept.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Review

Building on his previous work on James Boswell, Samuel Johnson's most celebrated biographer, Peter Martin has written a humane, coherent and accessible life of the great eighteenth-century polymath, deftly and sympathetically exploring his personal relationships and psyche while also locating him in the literary culture of his age.
--Henry Hitchings, author of Dr Johnson's Dictionary: The Extraordinary Story of the Book that Defined the World

As Johnson's three hundredth birthday approaches, the time is ripe for a new biography that takes into account all we have learned about Johnson in this century and the later years of the last. Martin knows and tells. The result is a highly readable, deeply informed book that should find a broad and appreciative audience.
--Robert Folkenflik, University of California, Irvine

Peter Martin's biography of Samuel Johnson is a profoundly poignant and eloquent account of the Western world's greatest literary critic. It is superior even to Martin's valuable biography of Boswell.
--Harold Bloom

Few writers can approach Johnson (1709–84) more surely than Martin, biographer of the Great Man’s own famous biographer (A Life of James Boswell)... From the ordinary clay of words, Martin sculpts an impressive image of an extraordinary man. (Kirkus Reviews 2008-07-01)

Samuel Johnson (1709–1784) remains one of the most-quoted and carefully observed authors who ever lived. On the occasion of Johnson's tercentenary, Martin searches out the psychological elements covered up by Boswell and others: the immense insecurities, bouts of deep depression, corrosive self-doubt and, in his last days, despair for his very soul...Martin admirably succeeds in giving a new generation Dr. Johnson, warts and all, from the inside. (Publishers Weekly 2008-07-21)

Martin's book emphasizes aspects of Johnson not covered by any previously published biographies--including excellent ones by W. Jackson Bate, James L. Clifford, John Wain, and, of course, James Boswell--notably Johnson's deep depressions; his liberal views on women writers, slavery, and poverty (he was not the complete Tory that others have painted him); and Johnson as a writer whose works deserve to be better known by the general public...Written in an engaging manner and featuring many quotations from Johnson and his friends and acquaintances, this new portrait of a complex, multifaceted writer and thinker is highly recommended.
--Morris Hounion (Library Journal 2008-09-01)

Modern biographers are aware of the competition. They have to write a first-rate book about Johnson or hear from critics that they've foolishly entered the wrong league. And a number of scholars, notably Paul Fussell and W. Jackson Bate, have given us remarkable portraits. They're now joined by Peter Martin, whose Samuel Johnson: A Biography is a model of its kind: a deeply felt, beautifully written account of a personality about whom we cannot know enough.
--George Sim Johnston (Wall Street Journal 2008-09-18)

A fetching new version of the life of Samuel Johnson.
--Julia Keller (Chicago Tribune 2008-10-19)

Martin brings alive with novelistic detail such famous scenes as Johnson's youthful ride to London to be touched by Queen Anne for "the king's evil"--scrofula, which was believed to be curable by a touch from royalty; his public rejection of the Earl of Chesterfield's 11th-hour patronage of his dictionary; and the actor David Garrick's keyhole spying on (and later parody of) Johnson's amorous pursuit of Mrs. Johnson. For a man who bragged and twitched and stank, Johnson had a lot of friends, and Martin superintends them like a film director: poet Charlotte Lennox, painter Joshua Reynolds, novelist Fanny Burney and, of course, future laird and biographer James Boswell.
--Michael Sims (Washington Post Book World 2008-12-21)

Meticulously researched and well written.
--James Srodes (Washington Times 2009-01-25)

Martin has spent a lifetime steeped in Johnson's world, having written definitive biographies of Boswell and of Edmond Malone, the Irish Shakespearean scholar without whose help the unstable Boswell might never have finished his massive biography...As a character, Johnson turns out to be not only funny and wildly eccentric--as we always knew he was--but deeply poignant. I was moved to tears by Martin's biography.
--Brooke Allen (Wilson Quarterly 2008-12-01)

[An] outstanding new biography.
--Christopher Hitchens (The Atlantic 2009-03-01)

The story is well told, quotations from Boswell and Johnson are frequent and judicious, the anecdotes (familiar to some) are enlivening, and a picture of the fierce, complicated, manically eccentric genius emerges that will provoke admiration and wonder.
--Rex Murphy (Globe and Mail 2009-02-21)

Martin offers a convincing psychological study.
--Leah Price (New York Times Review of Books 2009-02-01)

[Samuel Johnson] will give readers a good sense of this extraordinary individual. For those who already know a fair bit about the subject, Martin will fill out the picture more amply.
--Pat Rogers (New Criterion 2009-06-01)

As author also of A Life of James Boswell, Martin knows the territory and obviously enjoys it...The tercentenary of the birth of so large a figure is more than enough reason for new perspectives, and Martin's work is worthwhile.
--G. Shivel (Choice 2009-07-01)

A lively new biography, a book well seasoned with good stories, most of which do not seek always to show the Doctor in a better light...Martin is sympathetic to Johnson and equally sympathetic to the truth about him. He has hitherto written excellent biographies of both Boswell and Edmond Malone--two of the Doctor's brightest satellites--and he turns to Johnson with a strong and nuanced sense of how he was, as much as anything, the figment of a great many busy pens, not least his own.
--Andrew O'Hagan (New York Review of Books 2009-10-08)

[Martin] is a literary conduit, bringing Johnson from the 18th-century English Tory world of letters down to the modern reader...[He is] an author who writes with an eloquent propinquity, a delightful sense of companionship, about a figure otherwise clouded in antiquity...He shows why the man is still so influential and--important this--still read.
--Michael Coren (National Post 2009-09-19)

[Martin] writes with an eloquent propinquity, a delightful sense of companionship, about a figure otherwise clouded in antiquity. Martin is strikingly good...on Johnson's literary achievement. He shows why the man is still so influential and--important this--still read.
--Michael Coren (Ottawa Citizen 2009-10-11)

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Customer Reviews

4.4 out of 5 stars
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When in full flow, his writing was astounding in clarity.
Fred L. Houpt
For Americans, one of Peter Martin's emphases is particularly interesting: Johnson's opposition to the American Revolution.
Larry K. Uffelman
When I had completed reading Peter Martin's biography of Samuel Johnson, I simply applauded.
Gary Strickland

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

14 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Fellowman from Global-Village on November 29, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I first came across Samuel Johnson as a 15-year old sitting on the porch of an old farmhouse where I spent the lazy summer days reading an abridged but still lengthy version of Boswell's "Life of Johnson." The encounter with Samuel Johnson was for me a formative event in maturing from adolescence into adulthood.

C S Lewis, professor of mediaeval and Renaissance English literature and Christian apologist, towards the end of his life was asked in 1962 "what books did most to shape your vocational attitude and your philosophy of life?" James Boswell's "Life of Samuel Johnson" was among the ten titles listed by C S Lewis.

It's been a generation since the last major biographies of the 18th century London literary arbiter Samuel Johnson. Author Peter Martin writes in the preface to his life of Johnson that "I came to write a biography of Samuel Johnson for the tercentenary of his birth in 2009 through writing biographies of Edmund Malone and James Boswell, two good friends devoted to the great man...."

Peter Martin takes into account the scholarship since the last biographies of 30 years ago and gives us a new appraisal.

The style and content of this new biography can be gleaned from the author's description of why he prefers a certain portrait of Samuel Johnson, of the many painted over his lifetime: "There is a portrait by his friend Sir Joshua Reynolds painted in the 1760s, when Johnson was in his late fifties, which speaks volumes about the private Johnson. In it Johnson does not hide under the wig in which men were conventionally painted in the eighteenth century and which could blur the persona with an appearance of social respectability. He looks less cloaked and protected, vulnerable yet courageous, even defiantly introspective.
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Michael Kohlhaas on April 12, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Admirers of Samuel Johnson--of whom I am one--tend to think of him as a sort of personal friend. We delight in his company, and gather around him as though we were modern-day members of his Club. We will all want to read this book, because we read every book about Johnson; each new book permits us to enjoy his company once again. But in this case we are somewhat disappointed, because the Johnson presented by Peter Martin is not the one we want to know.

Martin has written a thorough, workmanlike biography, perhaps the most detailed and complete that has yet been written. But it is not a loving biography, and fails to capture the charm of the great human being that he writes about. On the contrary, it is rather morose, with heavy emphasis on Johnson's many illnesses, both mental and physical. The delight of Boswell's book, with its warm feeling of intimacy, is nowhere present. Nor does it pretend to be a literary-critical biography, in any serious sense. It is simply a detailed exposition of the events in the life of Samuel Johnson. If one wished to be unkind, one might say it is like a Wikipedia article, grown to 500 pages long.

Samuel Johnson was one of the great prose stylists in the English language, and it is a grave risk to appear in his presence without being a tolerably good writer oneself. Because the book is full of Johnson quotes, it constantly contrasts the Johnsonian style with the Martinian, and alas, Mr. Martin is revealed as a ham-fisted writer. Some sentences are ungrammatical; some are incomprehensible; very few have any esthetic appeal. Moreover, Martin uses a technique in which quotations from Johnson--ranging from long ones to single words--are inserted into Martin's sentences, through the use of quotation marks.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By bronx book nerd VINE VOICE on January 27, 2009
Format: Hardcover
This was a terrific book to read about one of the intellectual giants from Western civilization. The average reader is probably more familiar with the occasional Johnson quote but unfamiliar with his life or massive body of work. Author Peter Martin gives us a wide retrospective on Johnson's life, showing us how the man was as deeply complicated as he was intelligent. We get to see not only his deep penetrating mind at work but also the internal battles that he fought regarding his own fears and deficiencies. That he did not receive a degree or finish his formal education was probably a blessing for the rest of us because his moral acuity and insight is steeped in the reality of everyday existence. He was no ivory tower academic but a man who lived through pervasive poverty and profound bouts of depression, yet always reaching for higher lights and searching for moral strongholds in every situation. His deep religious faith was central to Johnson, whose mental struggles were made the more harsh by his own admittedly difficult personality as well as by his physical appearance and odd gesticulations.

His writing output was unbelievable, penning a new edition of the English dictionary, a critical edition of all of Shakespeare's plays, biographies of major english poets, and innumerous essays, pamphlets and book prefaces. He even ghost wrote a good number of sermons on behalf of a pastor friend. He was so intelligent that his contemporaries sometimes avoided his company out of fear of being humiliated in argument. Today he might be called a polymath or a Renaissance man, and it is a shame that our educational institutions for the most part are no longer designed to produce such men or women with any consistency.
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