Samuel Johnson: A Biography

Early this year, during my Christmas vacation (which lasted into January), I read James Boswell’s Life of Johnson, which I liked a lot. I mentioned in my review that I’d like to read a modern biography, to see how it differs from and enhances Boswell’s. For this project I chose Peter Martin’s Samuel Johnson: A Biography, more or less at random (it was cheap on Kindle, so even if I ended up not liking it, it wouldn’t much matter). Well, I’ve read it now, and it was not bad but not great.

The biography goes into a lot of detail about all the occurrences in Johnson’s life. I learnt a lot that wasn’t mentioned in Boswell’s Life, especially about Johnson’s early life, before he met Boswell. A lot about his struggles with procrastination (very relatable), writer’s block, and depression as well as illness. A great deal about his efforts to earn money before at last he was granted a pension – he was a poor and struggling author for many years. Boswell mentioned it as well, but not in such detail.

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There is a lot more information about Johnson’s relationships with his wife and other women, especially with Mrs. Thrale, into whose family Johnson was integrated for many years until the death of Mr. Thrale. Mrs. Thrale then went on to marry a younger Italian, much to everyone’s censure. She also published recollections of her time with Johnson which mentioned complaints about his behaviour and his excessive reliance on her during his bouts of illness and depression – Boswell saw that as an act of betrayal and didn’t go into details but rather vilified Mrs. Thrale. It does seem rather nasty of her to publish such details after Johnson’s death, when he couldn’t give his view of things anymore, but on the other hand, Johnson does seem to have been a difficult guest at times. Still, she probably also published her recollections to cash in on Johnson’s fame and they were estranged because of her marriage, so it’s no wonder that she didn’t want to present Johnson in a purely adulatory way. And it’s interesting of course to have differing views on the same person.

In general, Martin’s biography dwells a lot more on Johnson’s hard life and the difficult side to his character while also showing his empathy and charity for others. Johnson supported quite a few people in his household who would otherwise have been in dire straits and didn’t forsake them although they could be very quarrelsome and sometimes made his life uncomfortable in his own home. He was contentious and liked to win arguments while also quickly ready to be reconciled with his friends when he had fought with them. He had a larger than life personality, which both biographies reveal.

Reading Boswell’s Life, I got the impression that Johnson was a Tory, a conservative, as opposed to a Whig (apparently the progressives of the 18th century – I’m not very well informed about the politics of the time). But with the details that Martin provides, it becomes much clearer that while Johnson had some conservative convictions, he also had a lot of progressive or libertarian ideas. In short, he used his brains and made up his own mind, always informed by his religious convictions and charitable attitudes.

Martin’s biography also dwelt on Johnson’s fear of death, which I don’t recall being so prominent in Boswell’s account. It’s quite striking but very relatable that someone like Johnson, a moralist, a Christian and person full of charity should be so uncertain about his state of redemption. He was eager to undergo horrible medical treatments if there was a chance that they would prolong his life and only became calm and reconciled with death in his last days or even hours (which are very well reported because a lot of his friends were with him during his last days, except for Boswell, who lived in Scotland and wasn’t in London at the time).

Martin’s biography gave a more detailed (in some parts) and perhaps more complete picture of Johnson than Boswell’s did, but I enjoyed Boswell’s view and writing much more. It is a work of art that I’m sure I’ll want to reread. Martin’s seems to be a well-researched biography, and I don’t regret reading it, but it is dry and kind of cold in comparison. I probably won’t want to reread it, but I’ll use it as a reference book, to look up facts, not to read for pleasure. If you are interested in Samuel Johnson, I think that the best and most congenial start is still Boswell’s Life of Johnson.

Keep safe, world.

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.

December Reading

In December I had to work up to and including the 23rd (very busy I was, too. It was dreadful). Afterwards I had lots of time for reading, but I also got some books read before Christmas.

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Poetry:

  • Patrick Crotty (ed.), The Penguin Book of Irish Poetry
    I got almost to the half-way mark in this amazingly good anthology. It’s a big hardcover and I didn’t feel like lugging it to Bavaria, so I read some other poems while I was there (from December 10 to 31).
  • Janet E. Gardner et al. (ed.), Literature: A Portable Anthology. 4th Edition
    This anthology contains 200 poems and I didn’t quite manage to finish all of them while I was in Bavaria. They were a good selection and I posted a couple of poems during December that especially struck me. I’ll finish these poems next time I’m in Bavaria. A lot of them were more modern than most of the other poems I read this year. I think I would like to read an anthology of modern poetry sometime this year.

Non-Fiction:

  • James Boswell, The Life of Johnson (1791)
    I started this on Christmas and almost finished it by the end of the year (had 150 pages left and finished it in the first days of 2012). It’s huge, around 1000 pages with quite small print in my Penguin Classic edition. Between Christmas Eve and the New Year, I did almost nothing except read this book, eat cookies and take Curious Dog for his walks. I loved it. It’s very lively and makes both the writer (Boswell) and subject, Samuel Johnson, come alive. I will write a review.
  • Bella DePaulo, Alone: The Badass Psychology of People Who Like Being Alone
    This was a disappointment. A publication of a lot of blog posts, very repetitive and seemed superficial. This was the worst book I read all year. I won’t be writing a review. Luckily it was a very cheap Kindle version.

Novels:

  • Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist and A Tale of Two Cities
    My November and December final Dickens novels. Both were good but I preferred AToTC and I still plan to write reviews, although I’m rather behind with them.
  • Toni Morrison, Home and God Help the Child
    My final two Morrison novels. Good, as always, and also still waiting for their reviews. They were both short novels.
  • Ernest Cline, Ready Player One and Ready Player Two
    The first was a re-read, the second had just been published. I liked them both.
  • Elizabeth Wein, Code Name Verity
    A very well-written Young Adult spy novel set in WWII. I had to read it for my book club and quite enjoyed it but found it too constructed. Everything fell into place like a completed puzzle, no open ends, no missing pieces. Everything was explained, there was no ambiguity (well, there was ambiguity, but it was too obvious). Too pat for me. Although, I probably would have liked it a lot as a teenager. I think it succeeds very well at what it set out to do but it didn’t do much for me, except that I learned that there were women pilots in WWII (not in the British Air Force itself, but in supporting positions). That was fascinating and new to me.

I managed to read more than half of the books I had planned to read by the end of 2020, as posted here. All the ones that I didn’t get to are still on my TBR-pile for 2021. One I have already read in January, but that will be part of my January Reading post.

I hope to get all the reviews from December done by the end of January. I should probably have made a goal that I shouldn’t start a new book before I’ve written a review of the one just finished (if I want to write a review).

Keep safe, world.