The Magazine

The Good Doctor

Samuel Johnson, writer and sage.

Nov 9, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 08 • By EDWARD SHORT
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Samuel Johnson
A Biography by Peter Martin Harvard, 640 pp., $35


Samuel Johnson
The Struggle by Jeffrey Meyers Basic Books, 552 pp., $35

Samuel Johnson
A Life by David Nokes Henry Holt, 448 pp., $32

James Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson (1791) may be the greatest biography ever written, but it is also uneven, unbalanced, and anything but definitive. In the last 60 years many Johnsonians have rounded out Boswell's account. James Clifford re-created his pugnacious youth; Walter Jackson Bate explored his moral vision; Donald Greene took up his politics; Jonathan Clark meticulously delineated his essential Toryism; Robert DeMaria reassessed his literary achievement; Henry Hitchings revisited his lexicographical innovations; and Ian McIntyre just completed a study of his relationship with Hester Thrale.

Now, to mark Johnson's 300th birthday, Peter Martin, Jeffrey Meyers, and David Nokes have written new biographies of the poet, lexicographer, essayist, critic, biographer, and editor who dominated the late 18th century, and has fascinated readers ever since.

Johnson's life can be seen best as a study in indomitability. Born in the cathedral town of Lichfield in 1709, half-blind and scarred with scrofula, he later recalled that he "was born almost dead and could not cry for some time." His father was a bookseller and his mother a peevish, implacable woman. At Lichfield Grammar School, he had Latin beaten into him by a schoolmaster who would cry out as he thrashed his charges: "I do this to save you from the gallows."

Johnson escaped the gallows but not debtor's prison. Poverty dogged him all his days until George III awarded him a pension in his fifties. He could only afford to spend a year at Oxford, and when he returned dejectedly to Lichfield, he suffered the first of his two crack-ups, which nearly relieved him of his sanity. After failing to make a living as a schoolmaster, he moved to London and put himself to school in the arts of Grub Street, where he gradually established himself as "that great Cham of literature," as Tobias Smollet called him.

The works on which Johnson's literary reputation is based include the pioneering Life of Savage (1744); the long poem, The Vanity of Human Wishes (1749), which T.S. Eliot thought superior to Gray's Elegy and "the perfect theme for his abilities"; his great Dictionary (1755), on which Noah Webster and James Murray based their dictionaries; Rasselas: The Prince of Abyssinia (1759), an Oriental tale featuring some of Johnson's wittiest prose, which he dashed off in two weeks to bury his mother; A Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland (1775), a caustic account of his trip to the Hebrides with Boswell; a fascinating edition of the works of Shakespeare (1765); and his magnificent Lives of the English Poets (1779-81), which Oxford recently released in a superb four-volume set edited by Roger Lonsdale. Johnson also wrote some of the greatest essays in the language, including a series of moral essays for a periodical called The Rambler (1750-52) and a series of more lighthearted essays for two other periodicals, The Adventurer (1754) and The Idler (1758-1760).

That most of these works remain available in popular editions refutes the claim that Johnson is no longer read. The common reader, "uncorrupted by literary prejudices," with whom Johnson "rejoiced to concur," continues to enjoy the power and richness of his work.

In 1735, Johnson married Elizabeth Porter, a widow 20 years his senior, who fell in love with the genius of her unlikely suitor, if not his grotesque person, telling her daughter: "This is the most sensible man that I ever saw in my life. " Her death inspired Johnson's greatest sermon, which he wrote to bear the seemingly unbearable trial of bereavement. "The only end of writing," he once wrote, "is to enable the reader better to enjoy life, or better to endure it. " In his sermon for Tetty, he practiced what he preached.

Since one of Johnson's deepest convictions was that "a decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization," he made his successive London homes a haven for strays and misfits and often walked the streets at night to put pennies in the palms of sleeping homeless children. Still, when it came to poverty and the problems that perpetuate poverty, Johnson was no liberal; he believed in alms, not government handouts. And he also believed in something our own liberals abominate: personal responsibility. "Resolve not to be poor," Johnson urged the extravagant Boswell, "spend less. Poverty is a great enemy to human happiness; it certainly destroys liberty, and it makes some virtues impracticable."