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Samuel Johnson (1977)

de W. Jackson Bate

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#"Originally published in 1975 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York and London"--T.p. verso.#Includes bibliographical references and index.

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"Samuel Johnson" by Walter Jackson Bate is a well-researched biography of this unique and wonderful genius. Cursed by poor health and poverty, Johnson rose not through bald ambition but purely by his will to learn and to be a positive force for enlightenment. Brutally honest with himself and shedding all illusion about his fellow man, he fought through periods of melancholy and near madness to enlist a personal faith that, along with help from generous and appreciative friends, sustained him adequately to become perhaps the most distinguished man of letters in English history.

Among his remarkable achievements is compilation of a comprehensive Dictionary of the English Language which he completed in a few years, while committees of dozens of scholars of other countries were taking decades to assemble dictionaries in their tongues. Helpful were his mastery of Greek and Latin and the classics and his near-perfect memory for what he had very widely read. With its apt citations it is considered a work of literature.

Other valuable works include the poem "The Vanity of Human Wishes", his highly original criticism of Shakespeare, biographies, biographical sketches called "Lives of the Poets", essays, and many speeches and lectures written for others for free and not for attribution to Johnson. For example, without formal training in the law, Johnson wrote legal lectures for delivery by the successor to the great Blackstone.

Another example. For a newspaper he wrote a number of Parliamentary speeches. It was illegal to report the actual speeches, so Johnson sent someone to listen to them and make notes on their context. From the notes and his fine knowledge of the world, Johnson invented speeches and printed them as disquisitions from a fictional land, so that his perceiving public could sense the issues involved. Johnson's speeches were often so far superior to the actual ones that the politicians began claiming them, and they came to be collected and reprinted as genuine.

Johnson is said to be after Shakespeare the most quoted man in the English language; much of it from conversation recorded by associates. He did his own thinking about everything, great or small. He could have been a withering satirist to match Swift but was by will or by nature generous, and from his own struggles and erudition was sympathetic to trials and obstacles threatening everyone and was likely wary of his power to inflict harm.

If you are wanting an easy read about Johnson and have not already done so, then try Boswell's "Life of Johnson". The drawback is that nearly all of that book is about the last third or fourth of Johnson's life; that is, when Boswell knew him. Still, that book is a solid classic.

This biography covers Johnson's entire life, and Bate fills in the years missing from Boswell and corrects errors. There are two quibbles. Bate writes in a style that is amiable, wise and non-academic, but a little too careful to read effortlessly. And he does a bit more of psychologizing than usual, though it is done well, and primarily for Johnson's formative years. That this won the 1978 Pulitzer Prize for biography should not deter anyone.

But it is Johnson himself who carries the day to make this an easy five-star recommendation. ( )
  KENNERLYDAN | Jul 11, 2021 |
Bate, Walter Jackson. Samuel Johnson. 1977. Counterpoint, 1998.
Samuel Johnson (1709-1785) is the preeminent example of what is now a vanishing breed: a man of letters. He singlehandedly wrote the first English Dictionary worthy of the name, an edition of Shakespeare that was the standard text for two centuries, one of the earliest philosophical novels, one of the best philosophical poems of his century, and a body of journalistic writing, sermons, and biography that no one has ever equaled. He was fluent in several languages, most notably, Latin, and late in life taught himself Dutch just to keep his mind off his troubles. He was also the subject of the classic biography written by James Boswell. Much of his journalistic writing and all the sermons were written anonymously or ghostwritten for someone else. While working for a magazine, he was given notes on parliamentary speeches and then wrote what purported to be transcripts of the speeches. He did such a good job that no one from either party ever complained to the magazine. Johnson had written better speeches for them than they had actually made. He lived into his seventies but suffered all his life from depression, convulsions and twitches, poor eyesight and hearing. He was forced to drop out of Oxford in his second year because he could not pay the tuition and remained poor until late in life. Boswell always called him Dr. Johnson, but all his degrees were honorary. His political and philosophical views are difficult to classify. Deeply religious, he seldom went to church. A Tory, he opposed colonialism and slavery. In fact, he made a former slave, whom he employed and helped educate, his main heir. He is certainly a man whose life is worth knowing. The biography by Walter Jackson Bate is still the most detailed and well-researched life of Johnson, despite a couple of major biographies written to celebrate the 300th anniversary of his birth in 2009. It may be a bit more Freudian than is now popular, but most of its judgments seem sound. Bate’s discussion of “The Vanity of Human Wishes” is especially insightful. Five stars. ( )
  Tom-e | Apr 24, 2021 |
Art Fair street sale. ( )
  ME_Dictionary | Mar 20, 2020 |
While it is primarily, a psychological portrait of the man and how he struggled with severe depression and major breakdowns and Tourette's Syndrome and much more throughout his life, it also shows how very much one individual can achieve in life despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

With the book's subject matter being what it is, it is probably not suitable for a 'beach read' but it did get a Natl Bk Award, the Pulitzer Prize, etc.
  Urquhart | May 28, 2013 |
4197 Samuel Johnson, by W. Jackson Bate (read 16 Aug 2006) (Pulitzer Biography prize for 1978) (National Book Award biography prize for 1978) (National Book Critics Circle biography award for 1978) I have a minor plan to read all the Pulitzer-prize-winning biographies, and reading this brings to 56 such winners I have read (leaving 32 not read). Johnson was born on my birthday in 1709 but was never a favorite of mine in any Lit class I ever took but this is a good book--better than Bate's book on Keats (read 25 June 1983) or his slighter book on Coleridge (read 8 June 1972). There are a few dull chapters in the book but Johnson's life was an interesting one and this book covers it well. He died at 7 PM on Dec 13, 1784. Bate's neat summary sentence: "This was especially true of those who know something of his early life--Johnson walking the wet road to school at Merkel Bosworth, leaving for London with David Garrick, writing the parliamentary debates in a garret, trudging the street all night with Richard Savage--as well as the Johnson who wrote the dictionary, The Vanity of Human Wishes, and struggled against despair to bring out the edition of Shakespeare, who looked after waifs and strays, ran the race with tiny John Ryne, imitated the kangaroo, rolled down hills, wrote The Lives of the Poets, and became the greatest talker in the history of the English language." All in all this was a good book to read and Johnson was a great man, even if he had his peculiarities. ( )
2 vote Schmerguls | Oct 23, 2007 |
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#"Originally published in 1975 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York and London"--T.p. verso.#Includes bibliographical references and index.

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