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Life of Johnson (Oxford World's Classics) Paperback – Unabridged, November 19, 1998

4.8 out of 5 stars 13 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

James Boswell is for some the ideal scribe, for others a sycophantic toady. Edmund Wilson, for example, 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 suchdelightful 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. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


"I don't need to tell you what a splendid service Oxford performs by having the complete Life available inexpensively and with Chapman's deft annotations and Rogers's smart and useful introduction."--Alexander Poffit, University of North Texas

"...An elegant study of currents and of undercurrents in the travellers' separate accounts of their journey to the Western Islands. Reading this book, we realize better than before what Johnson and Boswell, separately and together, were so passionately in quest of...be grateful for the imaginative light [the book] throws on the mythic-seeming journey and on those mythic-seeming voyagers whose travels still haunt some of our waking dreams."--The Albion


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Product Details

  • Series: Oxford World's Classics
  • Paperback: 1536 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; Unabridged edition (November 19, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0192835319
  • ISBN-13: 978-0192835314
  • Product Dimensions: 7.6 x 2.4 x 5.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.9 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,200,543 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
Boswell was not the obvious choice to write the best biography about Samuel Johnson, much less one of the greatest biographies in world literature. He had much less contact with Johnson than Mrs. Thrale, for many years a close friend of Johnson who spent much more time with him than did Boswell. In fact, Boswell spent perhaps 400 days with Johnson over a period of many years. He also was not Johnson's literary executor. Finally, Boswell was regarded by many of his day, and afterwards, as something of an 18th Century celebrity hound. He made a point of meeting every famous person he could (Voltaire, Rousseau), and went to great efforts to make himself famous. Nevertheless, in his Life of Johnson, Boswell succeeded in portraying Johnson and his circle so vividly that more than 200 years later they come across as real human beings. He did this by breaking the convention of concentrating only on the most favorable aspects of his subject's life, and instead describing Johnson's eccentricities of dress, behavior, etc. Moreover, Boswell did not neglect to include incidents that make himself appear ridiculous. The book is both extremely funny and moving. If you read this, you will want to immediatley get a copy of Boswell's book on the trip that Johnson and he took to the Hebrides.
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By A Customer on July 17, 2000
Format: Paperback
Ah, Ol' Sam, the Great Cham as somebody called him (it's an 18th century misreading of "Khan", fact fans). My opinion of Johnson the writer fluctuates over the years; sometimes he seems a long-winded authoritarian, at other times his juggernaut sentences seem possessed of a superhuman vitality. Whatever. This isn't Johnson the writer we're concerned with, so much as Johnson the talker - the gruff, ridiculously prejudiced, gloomy, scrofulous clubman, holding forth from the biggest chair in the room, wisecracking, bullying, brooding and sulking.
Johnson was as lucky to have Boswell, as Boswell was to have Johnson. The conversations of great men tend not to be much fun; Eckermann's "Conversations with Goethe" is fascinating, all right, but Goethe's mixture of gossipy cattiness and Olympian pomposity gets to you after a while (Donald Barthelme wrote an evil parody of it). With Boswell's Johnson it's different. He seems at once painfully real and a caricature of himself. Boswell captures both the readiness to pontificate about anything under the sun and the panicky vulnerability. Eckermann's Goethe leaves the room when he's upset (nothing must ruffle the patrician facade) but Boswell's Johnson stays in his chair - we can see his reaction.
Of course there are drawbacks, in that half of the book covers the last ten or so years of Johnson's life, but there really isn't that much hard evidence about Johnson's early life beyond what Boswell himself collected. I reserve my doubts about Johnson's cultural politics, but the rolling, rumbling figure that Boswell sets down is one of my favourite characters in literature. Swift has a darker and more perplexing fascination for me, but you wouldn't have got the 44-year-old Swift out of bed at 3AM for a ramble.
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Format: Paperback
I'm no expert on 18th-century English literature, or on the famous work I'm being so daring as to review. I did, however, read every line of it, and I can say, I liked it.

I started reading this work---oft cited as the greatest biography in the English language, and surely the one where the subject was most un-objectively represented by his fawning chronicler---when I was a sixteen-year-old sophomore in an honors seminar. I finished it literally today, some eleven years and perhaps twenty-two starts and stops later.

What remains most strongly in memory, above the man about whom this was penned, is the era itself, which was captured in full dimension here by a scribe whose entire being seemed concentrated upon gulping down those scraps of notice sent his way by the movers and shakers, the "A-listers," of his century.

As a straightforward biography, this work is oddly paced, anything but impartial, and since it concentrates most of its scope on a relatively brief period in Johnson's life and career, curiously uneven. This is not unusual in biographies, of course, which tend to select moments that most closely define the subject's celebrity, but the pacing in the coverage does stick out at me. It also surprised me to find out that Boswell was around the great Johnson about a year's time, and the rest of his work, in all its ever-excusing hero-worshipping, anecdote-dribbling glory, is the result of his being privy to gossip, to making use of the facts known about Johnson, and by his, frankly, inventing whole sections in a kind of "non-fiction-fiction.
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Format: Paperback
James Boswell met Johnson when he (Boswell) was 23 and Johnson was 63. As a result, the emphasis of Boswell's biography is on Johnson's later years, but oh, what a record Boswell has left us. Boswell provoked Johnson to comment on a wide variety of topics, and recorded Johnson's doings with his circle of friends and colleagues. Boswell was a pleasant companion for Johnson, who usually accepted Boswell's constant probes (and even accompanied Boswell on a tour of the Highlands in 1773). Through it all, Boswell took notes, and jotted down everything Johnson said, recording many of Johnson's most famous comments. As a result, Boswell's biography of this great man of letters was a landmark biography, different from all biographies which came before, and still a point of comparison for biographies today. If you can get past Boswell's rather (in my opinion) obsequious tone, you will enjoy the ride very much. This Oxford World's Classics edition, edited by JD Fleeman, has a wonderful set of notes not found in other editions. It is a very affordable and thorough edition.
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