The life of Samuel Johnson

by James Boswell

Other authorsGordon Ross (Illustrator)
Hardcover, 1945




Garden City Books, 1945.


Boswell's biography of his friend and hero Samuel Johnson is an acknowledged classic, full of humorous anecdote and rich characterisation. Johnson's complex humanity (his depression, fear of death, intellectual brilliance and rough humour) is set within a vivid picture of eighteenth-century London, peopled by personalities of the time such as Sir Joshua Reynolds, John Wilkes, Oliver Goldsmith and David Garrick.

User reviews

LibraryThing member uncultured
At times it can be dry--especially when Boswell isn't relating his wonderful anecdotes. And Johnson can frequently be obnoxious--he often refuses to hear other people's opinions, he blindly defends king, country, and government from even the mildest criticism, and though he addresses his debaters
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as "Sir", he often ends the conversation with his metaphorical fingers stuck in his ears, chanting "Nyah-nyah you're wrong you're wrong!" ...Which is perhaps why the book is so charming. The first 200 pages or so are "Eh", since they are almost strictly fact-based, but once the ale starts flowing, it's like someone recorded the conversations of the most literate, witty alcoholics that ever existed. In fact, I wouldn't mind being the latest member of the Literary Club, and as soon as my time machine is done, it's cakes and ale for me!
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LibraryThing member LisaMaria_C
This is an abridgment of Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, which as it is runs to over 500 pages. I am glad I read it, but I’m also glad I read an abridgment (an ebook downloaded for free from The Gutenberg Project). In the preface the editor tells us he “omitted most of Boswell’s
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criticisms, comments, and notes, all of Johnson’s opinions in legal cases, most of the letters, and parts of the conversation dealing with matters which were of greater importance in Boswell’s day than now.” I don’t know I’d have been able to endure the full text--at least first time around. The book grew on me.

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.
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LibraryThing member librisissimo
Outstanding as much for the insight into Boswell's life as for the history of Johnson and his contemporaries. Johnson may have been a genius, but Boswell was a nicer person.
LibraryThing member aaronbaron
The progenitor of the modern biography still reads well, despite the cumbersome pomposity indicative of much 18th prose. The secret is in the remarkable characters, who just happen to be real. Johnson appears as shambling bulldog, full of eccentricity and worry, with a mind like a steel trap, while
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Boswell was an obsequious, vain main who, against every conceivable odd, actually produced a work of startling originality and keen insight. Their friendship defies easy understanding, but it produced a gossipy eulogy of a book that launched a genre.
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LibraryThing member kranbollin
This one volume unabridged edition has stood up well over three readings. There will be more readings to come because I love this book above all my others. I wish I could give it more stars.
LibraryThing member literarysarah
There is a reason this book is often mentioned as the quintessential biography. The first bit, which covers Samuel Johnson's life before Boswell met him, is pretty dry. But this only illustrates the real draw of the book. As I read through the letters and conversations, I found myself increasingly
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fascinated by Boswell and began to see Johnson as more of a secondary character through which Boswell's throughts and reactions are reflected. What at first appeared to me as an exercise in hero-worship became something infinitely more interesting and nuanced.
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LibraryThing member Pepys
Phew! I finished yesterday the two volumes! I knew it would be hard reading. But I'm glad I have done it. There were of course passages of little interest to me, for instance those where Johnson helps Boswell in untangling Scottish law questions. (But I'm sure lawyers are delighted by
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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.
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LibraryThing member ocianain
Boswell invents the biography, he chooses the most interesting man of the times as his subject.

Good choice. Great book
LibraryThing member PensiveCat
Boswell must have worshipped the ground Johnson walked on. How else could he have meticulously kept track of so many conversations with the man? I'd say he kept a voice recorder, but it's the wrong century. Anyway, even in the apparently abridged version we are taken to 18th century England, behind
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the scenes with some of the time's leading intellectuals and their friends. Johnson certainly had a way with words, though I couldn't completely agree with all of his views (his disdain for the Scottish was off-putting.) HIs love for tea made up for some of this. Great armchair by the fireplace with a brandy reading.
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LibraryThing member DavidGoldsteen
This book is so widely and commonly referred to that it's hard to think what I can add. All I'll say is this: there are certain books that everyone knows they _should_ read, yet don't. This is probably one of them (Don Quixote may be another) but it's a shame. It's an easy read, and a pleasant one.
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Eighteenth Century England really comes alive in Boswell's writing. And of course, there are Johnson's bon mots throughout the book.
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LibraryThing member ACDoyleLibrary
"This book interests me-- fascinates me-- and yet I wish I could join heartily in that chorus of praise which the kind-hearted old bully has enjoyed." - Through the Magic Door, p. 51
LibraryThing member breeks
This was a very long and wordy book dealing with Johnson's literary and erudite thinking. With over 600 pages Boswell had a huge collection of Samuel Johnson's mind. With time I found myself becoming more attuned to the real character of Johnson through the letters and quotes as recorded by
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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.
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LibraryThing member pickwick817
This is a great biography of a unique man. After reading the book I feel as if I know Samuel Johnson better than most of his contemporaries. He was a famous man in England. The book was written by James Boswell, who was a very close friend on Johnson's later in his life. The book therefore has many
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details about his personal life that could not have been known by a scholarly biographer.
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.
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LibraryThing member denmoir
Johnson is one of the great characters of modern life. Witty, quotable, irascible, fierce in opinion, an intellectual bully, full of self-doubts and fears. Boswell is one of the great biographers, pioneering a technique of personal reminiscences and extensive quotation of conversations to elucidate
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the character of his subject. Boswell is also delightful for his candour and personal involvement in the story.
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LibraryThing member JVioland
Boswell is a good biographer, better than most modern ones. Samuel Johnson was quite a character, one who, even today, would be interesting to know. Whether discussing the rebellion in the North American colonies, what words to place in his dictionary, a critique of Goldsmith's latest drama or what
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he likes to eat, Johnson lives in this book. So does London.
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LibraryThing member jhudsui
Many segments of this were interesting or entertaining but having finished it I definitely feel like I would have been better served by the abridged version. Boswell's digressions are almost half the book. It's somewhat unintentionally humorous the way he keeps bringing things around to talking
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about himself and somewhat ironic that he's been completely successful in his attempt to immortalize himself as much as his subject by this work but that this only resulted in being confirmed as a complete and utter tool to centuries of posterity. Most striking is possibly the two page rant he inserts about how Johnson was wrong to oppose slavery.

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.
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LibraryThing member MrsLee
Obviously, this rating is for myself alone. Two stars in my library means that I did not like the book, but that someone else might. In this case, I found Boswell to fawning for my enjoyment, and there were far more details than I was interested in. It is perhaps more an indication of my state of
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mind rather than an indictment on Boswell that I don't have the patience to read this huge tome.
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LibraryThing member browsers
One of the best books to just start browsing. I probably pick this up for a 20-minute entertainment as much as any other in my library.
LibraryThing member Chale
Boswell's delightfully written study of his friend and mentor Samuel Johnson paints a portrait not only of the great intellect but of 18th century intellectual life in London.
LibraryThing member JayLivernois
A nice little abridged version from the 50s suitable for traveling in both its time and ours.
LibraryThing member jakebornheimer
The stages of reading Boswell's Johnson thus far:
1) Believing Johnson was a genius.
2) Knowing Johnson was an idiot.
3) Shipping Johnson and Boswell.

The moment Boswell meets Johnson is electric.

I'm having so much fun with this one, Johnson is quite often extremely relatable: "I always feel an
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inclination to do nothing" (p. 268). Going to take a nice break before tackling volume 2.
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LibraryThing member jonbrammer
At the end of his Life of Johnson, James Boswell admits to many of his subject's faults: Johnson's irascibility, his prejudices, his narrow-mindedness in religion and politics. Johnson was a conservative with a capital C, and he is outright dismissive of many of the important philosophical ideas of
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his time (there is little consideration of Locke, Hume or Smith, much less Kant).

Instead, Johnson is known has the foremost literary figure of 18th Century London. He was not a man of ideas; rather, he was a man of language, and his greatest achievement was to codify that language in his Dictionary. Again, this project was an essentially conservative endeavor, an attempt to protect and elevate the language so that the uneducated masses could be kept in their linguistic place.

The Romantics that followed represented a rebellion against this staid, elitist, infighting group of literati that includes Addison, Steele, Pope and Johnson. Instead of engaging in a game of wits against their intellectual rivals, the Romantics sought to expand the possibilities of language by infusing it with a more natural, vernacular, personal and passionate approach. The writers of the Age of Johnson were essentially backwards looking, translating and retranslating the Greeks and Romans, writing criticism on Shakespeare. The Romantics were visionary and progressive. johnson would have probably scoffed at the likes of a Keats or a Blake as being too radical and impolite in their poetic visions.

Boswell's life of Johnson is confusing in that, while it is a warts and all depiction of the good doctor, the reader is a left with a sense that Boswell looks at his subject through the rose-colored lenses of a literary acolyte. What are we meant to think of this complicated man?
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