The Life of Samuel Johnson

During my Christmas vacation, I had lots of free time for reading. I also meant to do other less pleasant stuff such as cleaning up my desk and paperwork on which I procrastinated so much that in the end I didn’t get round to it – but, I have to admit, I didn’t much care. Anyway, reading. I spent three weeks reading The Life of Johnson by James Boswell. A huge tome in my Penguin Classics edition (edited by David Womersley); 1000 pages of small print (and a couple of hundred pages of appendices and notes).

The Life of Johnson (first published in 1792) has sometimes been called the greatest biography written in English (although I’m sure that modern critical opinion on that is very diverse). I first came across it during my studies of English Lit at university, and always felt intrigued but never actually got around to reading it. I’m not sure if I would have appreciated it at the time. Nothing particularly exciting happens in the biography. It’s a year-by-year account of Samuel Johnson’s life, as reported by his much younger friend Boswell.
Johnson was a famous man of letters, a poet, essayist, literary critic, and famously, a lexicographer, who by himself wrote A Dictionary of the English Language which was the most common dictionary in use for 150 years until the completion of the Oxford English Dictionary early in the twentieth century (and lots of scholars worked on that, including J.R.R. Tolkien if I remember correctly). An amazing achievement.

The Life is full of leisurely gossip about Johnson and his circle of friends, which included famous writers, actors, and painters. Boswell covers his later years much more than his earlier ones, as he only made his acquaintance when Johnson was already 54. He recounts many conversations he and others had with Johnson about all sorts of topics. He also cites a lot of the letters they exchanged and asks other friends of Johnson about their recollections and uses them in his work. The reader learns almost as much about Boswell as they do about Johnson, because Boswell doesn’t keep his opinions to himself.

Johnson comes across as a loving husband to his older wife, someone who cared and kept up with his stepdaughter all his life. He helped and cared for a few companions who lived in his house. He had a young black servant for whose schooling he paid and whom he left a generous inheritance. He had money troubles before he was granted a pension for life in recognition of his literary works. He was against slavery:

It is impossible not to conceive that men in their original state were equal; and very difficult to imagine how one would be subjected to another but by violent compulsion.

James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, ed. by D. Womersley, Penguin Classics, p. 632.

Boswell, by the way, was in favour of the slave trade and though that slaves had it better on plantation in Jamaica than in Africa!?!

Johnson was a conservative (a Tory) and was a great conversationalist on all sorts of topics. He liked being right and liked to play devil’s advocate. He cared a lot for his cats and occasionally got annoyed with Boswell’s needy whining (always asking for reassurance that they were still friends). Once he took a trip to the continent, to France and once he travelled with Boswell to Scotland (both Boswell and Johnson wrote travel accounts of this trip – I’d eventually like to read both of them). After this trip, he had a running joke for Boswell’s wife in his letters to Boswell. He also probably had periodic depressions and Tourette’s syndrome.

I thought that Johnson came across as an interesting and congenial personality in the Life and I would like to read some of his writings (I didn’t read much from the 18th century during my studies at university, but I enjoyed the reading I did later. For instance, a couple of years ago I read Richardson’s Clarissa with a friend and we both enjoyed it. Richardson was a friend of Johnson’s and once helped him out by paying some debts for him). It really struck me (it always strikes me when I read works from those times) how modern these people from the 18th century seem. They had so many concerns that we still have today. Johnson, for instance, considered his life each year and made goals, spiritual ones and ones about his writing. He often found that he could have done better and hoped to improve in the next year. Very relatable!

So, The Life of Johnson is a good read, if you like long meandering reports of daily life, literature, and ideas, with no plot to speak of.

I think one day I’m going to read a modern biography of Johnson, to see how it differs from Boswell’s.

Keep safe, world.

2 thoughts on “The Life of Samuel Johnson

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