27 of 28 people found the following review helpful
"Character: The person with his assemblage of qualities",
This review is from: Samuel Johnson: A Biography (Hardcover)
This is the tercentenary of Johnson's birth, and we have three fine new biographies - two of Johnson himself by Peter Martin and Jeffrey Meyers, and another of Hester Thrale by Ian McIntyre - to help us celebrate.
Peter Martin, who previously wrote a biography of Boswell, has produced a readable and informative account of the Doctor's life. It focuses more on the man than on the work, and more on his human qualities - oddities, frailties, anxieties - than on the public persona documented so effectively by Boswell. From birth, Johnson was beset by infirmities, part blindness, part deafness, scrofulla, a strange lumbering body and a serious tic, retrospectively diagnosed as a form of Tourettes. He suffered many disappointments - the drive to escape his father's failing booksellers business, his own failure as a schoolmaster, dropping out of Oxford without a degree due to lack of funds. (Britain's second most famous doctor received the degree on an honorary basis from both Oxford and Trinity College Dublin, but based on his own definition - " a man so well versed in his faculty as to be qualified to teach it," a doctor he deserved to be)- the efforts to establish his literary career, the frequent overcommitments - to produce the Dictionary by himself in three years, for example, when it took forty French scholars forty years to compile theirs ("so is the proportion of an Englishman to a Frenchman;") numerous sexual frustrations, some of which apparently were requited, several crises of faith (including the conviction that he was damned and would be "sent to hell, Sir, and damned everlastingly"), and a deep-rooted and pathetic fear of death. This is the Johnson, large and lonely, that Martin paints. The qualities that made his " stupendous" company a much sought after pleasure are more elusive. I even came away wondering why on earth Boswell, given his own character and proclivities, developed the hero worship which made Johnson famous.
Martin's coverage of Johnson's works is dutiful rather than enthusiastic or especially insightful, though to be fair much of the Doctor's oeuvre was closer to journalism than to literature, and much of it was of his time. He is, after all, famously famous for his personality and conversation rather than his work itself, the Dictionary aside.
At 466 pages before the notes, "Samuel Johnson:a biography" invites reference to the Doctor's comment about "Paradise Lost: ":"no man ever wished it longer," but for the most part it flows well and is a pleasure to read. Martin breaks the wall once or twice, lapsing into anachronistic comparisons: "bull-sessions" and the idea that Johnson would have been "a popular guest for television interviews" - what next, the Doctor on Facebook, no man but a bloghead ever wrote save for money? Nonetheless, this is a welcome and worthy addition to my growing mini library of books by and on Johnson and his milieu. It brings a fresh perspective but at the same time takes one back to the comfort of old and familiar friends.
PS Since I wrote this review, a third new biography of Johnson has been published : "Samuel Johnson: A Life" by David Nokes, who tragically died just as the favorable notices were coming in. This, too, is an excellent book, slightly less readable than Martin's or Meyers' but arguably more academically impactful. I recommend all three.