The Life of Samuel Johnson has been on my mental to-do list for a long time, possibly as far back as high school. I'm pleased to announce that I've finally read it, fulfilling my personal list and also another item from the fifty classics project.
|Portrait of James Boswell|
By the time James Boswell (1740-1795) came along, Johnson had quite a reputation. I always imagined that Boswell was something of a pest who followed Johnson around like a groupie, a sort of 18th century Mel from Flight of the Conchords. In reality they were close friends. Young Boswell spread the word that he was dying to be introduced to the great Samuel Johnson and eventually got his chance. The two men began to see each other often and attended evenings together, often in the company of other arts and literary figures like Oliver Goldsmith, Richard Sheridan, and Sir Joshua Reynolds. After each of these meetings, Boswell would record as much of the conversation that he could remember, and so Johnson's pronouncements were preserved.
It was Johnson who said that if a man was tired of London he was tired of life. He said a good many other things too: hilarious opinions about Scotland and the Scottish (hilarious to me anyway, perhaps not so funny to the Scottish although Boswell was Scottish), sharp remarks about Americans, a people whose fight for independence clashed with their practice of enslaving people, and many other memorable sayings that can now easily be found via google.
The Life of Johnson, in addition to containing a record of Johnson's conversation, includes the history of his early life, letters, and the sequence of his long friendship with James Boswell. The two men traveled to Scotland together (the subject of Johnson's Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides) and corresponded when Boswell was at home in Scotland. They had occasional falling outs, and Johnson is sometimes sharp with Boswell in his letters to him. Johnson admitted to being terrified of death (aren't we all) and the end of the book is sad. Johnson suffered from heart failure (known as dropsy in the 18th century) and the last fifty or so pages are of the many letters he wrote during his last days, plagued by shortness of breath, sleeplessness, and edema. He kept insisting that his symptoms were improving, as if he were trying to convince himself of this fact. Johnson died on December 13th, 1784.