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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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Top Customer Reviews
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.