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Johnson was famous as a literary critic (particularly of Shakespeare) and for his assembly of A Dictionary of the English Language. Boswell’s biography of the man has been described as “the most famous single work of biographical art in the whole of literature.” I decided to read it because its one of the works in Good Reading’s “100 Significant Books” and I found it practically a college education by itself reading the books on that list.
I did find it enormously entertaining. Johnson is known for his wit, which is good because Boswell in his narrative initially struck me as singularly humorless--and far too adoring. At one point Boswell admits he “cannot help worshipping” Johnson. And although I in the end I found him rather endearing, at first it was hard for me to find much to adore in Johnson, who seemed through much of this to be such a sanctimonious, misogynist prig. Mind you, Boswell does warn that Johnson loved to be contrary, play devil’s advocate, so it can be hard at times to know what should be taken seriously. Nevertheless, a lot of Johnson’s views, his love of rank and monarchy, with everyone keeping their place, his contempt for democracy, was pretty consistent. I could put it down to the times, were I not aware that after all this is a contemporary of Benjamin Franklin. As an American, Johnson makes me glad we separated from the Mother Country. He was a devout Anglican and Tory and after reading his views I can have no doubt in his place and time I’d be a Whig, his bete noir. For example:
“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.”
I asked him if it was not hard that one deviation from chastity should so absolutely ruin a young woman. Johnson. "Why no, Sir; it is the great principle which she is taught. When she has given up that principle, she has given up every notion of female honour and virtue, which are all included in chastity.
He thought portrait-painting an improper employment for a woman. “Publick practice of any art... and staring in men’s faces, is very indelicate in a female.” (He also believed a husband would be disgraced by allowing his wife to sing publicly for hire.)
[Johnson] had long indulged most unfavourable sentiments of our fellow-subjects in America. For as early as 1769... he had said of them, “Sir, they are a race of convicts, and out to be thankful for anything we allow them short of hanging. (Johnson wrote a pamphlet attacking the American patriots: Taxation No Tyranny.)
At the same time there were lines that made me smile, or that I did find wise. For instance, Johnson, that compiler of a dictionary, put in this definition of a Lexicographer: “a writer of dictionaries, a harmless drudge.” And I was taken with these two passages:
After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley's ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I shall never forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, "I refute it THUS."
To my question, whether we might not fortify our minds for the approach of death, he answered, in a passion, No, Sir, let it alone. It matters not how a man dies, but how he lives. The act of dying is not of importance, it lasts so short a time.” He added (with an earnest look,) 'A man knows it must be so, and submits. It will do him no good to whine.’
And there are so many sayings I’d heard of that I found could be traced to this biography--about second marriages: “the triumph of hope over experience.” “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” “Hell is paved with good intentions.” “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”
And this paints not just a picture of Johnson, but his times and contemporaries and companions: Oliver Goldsmith, the writer, David Garrick the actor, Sir Joshua Reynolds, the painter, politician Edmund Burke, in particular, but mentions of historians Edward Gibbons and Mrs Macaulay, novelists Richardson and Fielding and Fanny Burney and Richard Sheridan the playwright--even King George III. I don’t know that I can say I closed the book loving Samuel Johnson--but I did wind up loving Boswell’s biography of him.
Good choice. Great book
The cataloguing of all this material was a real tour de force by Boswell and the real measure of this collection is the way it reflects mainly higher English society of the day. This, I believe, is what makes this book such an important contribution to literature.
Certainly, some might find this book difficult to read, possibly even ponderous, what with English style and spelling of the day, not to mention many words that need some research in a modern dictionary to find (e.g. aminadventure).
A good read and worth having in most serious libraries today.
Dr. Johnson had a very strong personality. His company was saught after by many, but his wit could be a force not withstood by anyone he chose to take on in conversation. He also wrote one of the first modern dictionaries. His copy was considered the foremost until Webster came along.
As Boswell only knew Johnson during the last twenty years of Johnson's life, much of the book is devoted to describing that period, and the experience of an old man confronting his own mortality as he dies after seeing the deaths of most of his friends. Based on the consistency and fervor with which Johnson communicates his fear of death one is struck by the impression that the professed religious beliefs of even those of a previous, more credible age are quite hollow.
Unfortunately, I never read books with a pen in hand. Why, Sir, I deeply regret my not having done it in the present case. (Doesn't it sound Johnsonian?) However, I could fix in my memory a couple of Latin citations such as: Falsum in uno, falsum in omnibus [which I freely translate as: If there is an error somewhere, there can be others elsewhere], or Simili non est idem [Similarity is not identity]. I now use the first citation when a student brings me a report where I spot an error at once. (It's of limited practical interest since students don't speak Latin anymore.) I recently managed to use the second citation in a scientific article. And, in another recent article, I also managed to introduce a 6-line citation by Johnson on the uselessness to take into account popular reactions after an earthquake (14 Sept. 1777). So, over the last few months, my reading of The Life has been very profitable.
I long wondered if I would dare to write a review on such a famous book. Doing it makes me feel presomptuous, to use the same word as Boswell in his preface. When I reread the lines just above, I realize how Johnson would have been shocked by my abusive use of parentheses. (He almost never used them.) Some funny things I remember:
The insistance of Johnson at the end of almost all his letters to Boswell, with remarks concerning Mrs Boswell who does not like me. They met at the time of their tour to the Hebrides, when Johnson stayed at Boswell's for a while. Mrs Boswell was apparently fed up by Johnson's attitude & was glad to see him away.
Experiments made by Johnson on himself, & carefully noted in a diary in Latin. He once shaved the hair on his arm & around one nipple, just to see how long it would take to grow again.
The stupid idea of Boswell who decided once not to write to Johnson upon his return to Edinburgh, as he used to do normally, just to see how long it would take Johnson to write a letter. When he got it at last, he soon replied, telling Johnson it was a joke...
I don't know if I would have been pleased to share company with Johnson. His character & attitude are sometimes difficult to bear. The Life isn't always as funny as the anecdotes just above tend to prove. But, at the end of the book, I feel much acquainted with him & with the London literary life at the end of the 18c. His last years, when illness steadily progresses, are pathetic.
In my rating rules, 2 stars mark a book where I found interesting passages; 3 stars a book I would strongly recommend. I cannot go up to 3 stars for The Life, since I would not recommend it to anybody. You really need to have an interest in English literature & the 18c. to appreciate it. This explains my 2.5-star rating, which might seem a bit hard compared to the many 5 stars rated by other LTers.