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The Life of Samuel Johnson (Penguin Classics) Paperback – November 19, 2008
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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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The result is that Johnson comes across as a pompous but often hilarious windbag who seemingly could prattle for hours on virtually any subject, even taking contradictory stands just to keep conversations lively. Boswell admits on page 504 that Johnson saw “conversation as a contest.” Indeed, Johnson treated conversation as jazzmen do cutting contests, and he played to win even if it meant verbally zinging friends as well as foes.
Johnson was a staunch Tory devoted to king and country who hated Americans even before the Revolution. On page 693 Boswell notes in 1778 that Johnson “attacked the Americans with intemperate vehemence of abuse.” (No one would ever charge Johnson with being a liberal, though he was against slavery; curiously, fawning acolyte Boswell disagreed and saw slavery as sanctioned in the Bible.) Johnson was also devoted to the Church of England (on page 230 we find Voltaire referring to Johnson as “a superstitious dog”). But set him at a tavern table with a group of other loquacious gents, and the verbiage flew like shrapnel. (Johnson on page 505: “...there is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness has been produced as by a good tavern or inn.”) One of their literary group, Colly Cibber, wrote in a play, “There is no arguing with Johnson; for when his pistol misses fire, he knocks you down with the butt end of it.”
Johnson’s often antique opinions can be startling, whether on the subject of women, marriage, politics (p. 716, on whether public officials should be appointed by seniority or voted for: “...there is no more reason to suppose that the choice of a rabble will be right, than that chance will be right”), the existence of witches and ghosts, or his belief that teachers should be free to beat their pupils. P. 344: “...a schoolmaster has a prescriptive right to beat; and that an action of assault and battery cannot be admitted against him, unless there is some great excess, some barbarity...In our schools in England, many boys have been maimed, yet I never heard of an action against a schoolmaster on that account.” Johnson’s defense of this is that it was done to him as a boy and he turned out all right.
The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations has about nine pages of quotes attributed to Samuel Johnson. Such collections are fine as shortcuts, but if you want the context of those remarks, as well as many, many others (along with a fascinating look at 18th century London life), Boswell’s biography is without peer as an entertaining history.
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.