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Samuel Johnson: The Struggle Hardcover – December 2, 2008

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Dr. Johnson was one of the most keenly observed figures in his time, and with the second book of the season anticipating the 2009 tercentenary of his birth (after Peter Martin's, published by Harvard in September), he remains a massive, grotesque genius who continues to haunt us. Popularly written by prolific biographer and literary critic Meyers (Hemingway), this departs from a strict chronology to narrate significant events and their meaning for Johnson. A central concern involves one of Johnson's darkest secrets, which Meyers says other biographers have evaded: his masochistic sexuality at the hands of his confidante Mrs. Hester Thrale. The biography also speculates on other aspects of Johnson's sex life, both during his marriage to a much older woman and after her death. But Meyers's book is balanced and accomplishes much else. In discussing the great Dictionary that made Johnson famous (and led to a royal pension to ease his hardscrabble life), the Rambler and Idlers essays, Johnson's edition of Shakespeare and Lives of the Poets, Meyers goes to the heart of a tortured, contradictory and pessimistic sage whose self-lacerating personality, says Meyers, would come to influence modernists as disparate as Woolf, Beckett and Nabokov. 19 illus. (Dec.)
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From Booklist

*Starred Review* The second major new biography anticipating the natal tercentenary of the predominant figure in eighteenth-century English literature is by a much more prolific biographer than Peter Martin, whose fine Samuel Johnson (2008) took Johnson’s melancholy as its organizing theme. Meyers, whose previous subjects include movie stars, painters, and twentieth-century writers, structures his life around Johnson’s struggles not just with his morbid cast of mind but to accomplish virtually everything he achieved. That difference in emphasis has little effect on the core story both biographers tell, which is one of a rise from poverty to preeminence achieved despite great physical (Johnson had Tourette’s syndrome, a blind eye, and partial deafness) as well as psychological handicaps. Meyers, however, celebrates Johnson the author more than Martin does. He argues the quality of Johnson’s poems, essays, biocritical sketches, the philosophical romance Rasselas, and even the sermons he wrote for his clerical friend John Taylor by examining Johnson’s craft. If he provides less than Martin on some of the figures around Johnson, such as the helpers with his great dictionary, he provides much more on the higher-profile likes of Edmund Burke and Fanny Burney. More than Martin, he makes us want to read his subject. Surely that is the greatest service a writer’s biographer could ever perform. --Ray Olson

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 552 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; First Edition edition (December 2, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465045715
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465045716
  • Product Dimensions: 1 x 6.5 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,560,968 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Jeffrey Meyers is the author of Edgar Allen Poe: His Life and Legacy , Hemingway: Life into Art , Gary Cooper: An American Hero, Bogart, Edmund Wilson, and Joseph Conrad. He lives in California.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

22 of 24 people found the following review helpful By Christian Schlect VINE VOICE on December 18, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I have read the other Johnson biography of the season, Peter Martin's, and would suggest this effort by Jeffery Meyers is the more entertaining and pleasant to read. While both biographies are good, if I were asked to recommend one of the two to a friend who was a general reader, I would not hesitate to recommend Meyers'.

Jeffery Meyers brings Dr. Johnson to life for the person of our times by wisely using the great man's own words and those of others who were close to him, including Mrs. Thrale and James Boswell. Those who enjoy the art of writing will find this book instructive, both from the direct quotations from Dr. Johnson and the author's own intelligent and informative asides.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By J. P. Roy on December 31, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a readable and entertaining biography of Samuel Johnson. It is well written and expertly organized. As with other Meyers biographies, however, the research is sometimes sloppy. I suspect that Meyers does not do all his research himself but farms it out to others who are not that knowledgeable in the field. This results in the kinds of factual errors that crop up in this volume. I'll cite just two examples.

Meyers writes on page 293 that James Boswell met Johnson "in the back room of Tom Davies' bookshop at 8 Great Russell Street, near what is now the British Museum." The problem is, Davies' bookshop was not in GREAT Russell Street near the British Museum, but in Russell Street, Covent Garden--similar names but entirely different streets about half a mile apart.

On page 441 Meyers states that Johnson is buried in the Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey under Shakespeare's monument, "[David] Garrick at his right hand and [Oliver] Goldsmith just opposite." But Goldsmith is not buried in Westminster Abbey. He is buried in the Temple, just off Fleet Street, near the north-east side of Temple Church, under a white, weather-worn stone, shaped like a coffin lid. The stone bears the inscription "Here lies Oliver Goldsmith."

In the Poets' Corner hangs a memorial tablet and portrait of Goldsmith executed in marble by Joseph Nollekens and containing an inscription in Latin by Johnson. Sir Joshua Reynolds had the memorial placed above the door leading into St. Faith's Chapel, opposite to where Johnson and Garrick are buried. This cenotaph might lead the unsuspecting to think Goldsmith buried nearby, but he isn't.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on March 17, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Samuel Johnson belongs to another age, but his biography by James Boswell will be with us for as long as people are interested in reading about other people. Johnson's literary hits, his poems, plays, and essays, were well known in their time, but are fairly well limited now to academic study only. His splendid dictionary is long out of date, though his lexicographic principles are still regarded as exemplary by editors of, say, _The Oxford English Dictionary_. But in Boswell's _Life of Johnson_ we have a memorable character, funny, brilliant, and quirky; it was the first biography that brought forth the subject's personality, and Johnson will live in it forever. Boswell's portrait, for all its depth and magnificence, didn't get everything in. As Jeffrey Meyers, a previous biographer of many literary characters, points out in _Samuel Johnson: The Struggle_ (Basic Books), Boswell only knew Johnson in the latter part of his life, and devotes only a fifth of his biography to Johnson's first fifty-five years. Boswell knew of Johnson's diaries, but barely got a glimpse of them. Boswell was frank about recording his own sexual details in his journals, and knew something of Johnson's sexual enthusiasm, but did not see fit to write about it. He also suppressed details about Johnson's use of profanity, his excesses in eating and drinking, and his lapses into a depression bordering on madness. He didn't know anything of Johnson's fondness for whips, chains, and padlocks to be used upon him sexually. Meyers knows all these things, and tells them, and the result is a detailed, sympathetic portrait that will, of course, never replace the original, but will deepen the appreciation of just how much of a struggle it was to be Samuel Johnson, and how successfully the struggle was waged.Read more ›
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful By C. M Mills on January 30, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Samuel Johnson (1709-84) was a Renaissance man living in the Augustan Age of the late eighteenth century. He was a literary genius who produced among many other works:
1. The famous Dictonary of the English Language published in 1755. Dr. Johnson and a team of assistants produced this great work of scholarship after many years of labor.Johnson's Dictionary is still used today and is notable for its literary quotes and idiosyncratic definitions.
2. He produced such outstanding poetic classics as "London" and "The Vanity of Human Wishes." Johnson's only play "Irene" was a dismal failure.
He produced an excellent editon of Shakespeare based on the first folio as well as "Lives of the English Poets" completed in his autumnal years.
3. Johnson wrote voluminously for such magazines as "The Rambler", "The Adventurer" and "The Idler." His essays are masterpieces of English prose.
4. Johnson is the subject of the first modern biography which is James Boswell's "The Life of Johnson." Boswell was a Presbyterian rake but loved Johnson the devout member of the Church of England.
5, Johnson is one of the most erudite English authors. He left Oxford without a degree but knew French, Latin and ancient poets like the back of his large hands.
6. He suffered from many bodily woes such as being blind in one eye; deaf in one ear and horribly scared by smallpox. Johnson was nearly six feet tall and was mobidly obese. He suffered such maladies as dropsy, heart, kidney and liver problems. In addition to his physical afflictons, he was melancholic and gloomy. He feared hell fire and suffered from sexual problems (his good friend Hester Thrale beat him with whips to satisfy his urge to suffer flagellation due to what he considered his many sins.
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