Monday, June 22, 2009

Life of Johnson

The greatest achievement of Samuel Johnson, the most famous man of English letters, was the first comprehensive dictionary of the English language, a task that he accomplished almost single-handedly.

He is also remembered for:
• his essays in two periodicals, The Rambler and The Idler
• an influential edition of the plays of Shakespeare
• a series of biographical and critical sketches called Lives of the Poets
• a novel called Rasselas, which he wrote in a week
• a travelogue called A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland

But that’s not all. He was a celebrity in his own time, not just as a literary figure, but also as a conversationalist who could deliver incisive, well-formed sentences on any subject, and so loved verbal combat that people were sometimes were afraid to open their mouths around him. He had an almost oracular status.

Johnson achieved fame despite the handicaps of poverty and ill health. He was afflicted with scrofula, gout, dropsy, depression, asthma, weak eyes, and odd compulsive behaviour later diagnosed as Tourette’s Syndrome. He was forced to leave Oxford without taking a degree due to lack of funds, and later in life was arrested for non-payment of debts.

When he was 53, Johnson met a young Scottish man named James Boswell, and they formed a deep and lasting affection for each other. "Bozzy" immediately began recording Johnson’s conversation with the ultimate aim of producing a biography. The result is a work that has transmitted Johnson’s fame through the centuries.

Life of Johnson

First published in 1791, Boswell’s work has been called the most famous biography ever written. It's also one of the longest -- my edition clocked in at 1400 pages, not including an 90-page index. There are some rather dry stretches, due in part to issues that are no longer relevant, and to a style of writing that can be pompous and long-winded. And at times Boswell injects more of himself into the book than is warranted. For example, he launches into a lengthy defense when Johnson criticizes his Latin.

What I enjoyed most about this book was seeing Johnson's human side, particularly his wit, courage, and generosity. This great grotesque man is worthy of our respect and study. I was left with a desire to dig deeper into his writings, and to read a more modern biography.

In search of the latter I found this excellent article in The New Yorker.

Life of Boswell

Boswell was a likeable but somewhat aimless fellow, who during the course of his life met some of the greatest minds who ever lived. He was literally a student of Adam Smith at the University of Glasgow. During his travels on the continent he met Rousseau and Voltaire. Back in England, as part of Johnson’s circle of friends, he was on familiar terms with Edmund Burke, David Garrick, Oliver Goldsmith, and Sir Joshua Reynolds. He was also acquainted with David Hume and Laurence Sterne, and chatted with Captain Cook at a dinner party.

Thus it comes as something of a shock to learn that Boswell was a compulsive drinker, gambler, and fornicator. He was also a failure as a lawyer.