Sunday, November 1, 2009

Samuel Johnson: A Biography, by Peter Martin

James Boswell’s Life of Johnson (1791) is a masterpiece, but the real Samuel Johnson has long been overshadowed by Boswell’s brilliant construct. Far from being an irascible arch-Tory roaring bon mots at his quailing opponents, Johnson was “a man wracked with self-doubt, guilt, fear and depression”, says Peter Martin in this sympathetic biography. What Boswell doesn’t tell us is that Johnson was “one of the most advanced liberals of his time”, who opposed slavery and “freed” and educated his black servant, then left him his estate. Johnson also “treated women as intellectual equals and promoted their literary careers”. Johnson’s “mental distress” at Oxford is nicely handled, as is the lasting effect on him of his young wife’s death. Recent scholarship continues to chip away at the authority of Boswell’s Life, and what with the recent arrival of David Nokes’s Samuel Johnson there are now multiple lenses through which to view the Great Cham. Although, as Martin readily admits, “The best way to get the measure of Johnson is to read him.”

No comments: