Thursday, October 29, 2015

Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson

2015 will go down in my memory as the year I read all the difficult books. I apologize for making you suffer through these posts about books that appeal mostly to scholars.  I promise I'll be reading more fun things soon.

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

Samuel Johnson
Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) is best known for his Dictionary, completed in 1755.  In his early career, he was a teacher (the playwright David Garrick was one of his students) and later lived a life of rakish poverty in London, writing journal articles and essays.  The Dictionary gained notice as an important contribution to English letters and King George III granted Johnson a  yearly pension.  Johnson continued to write and his other works include an account of a journey to the Hebrides, and his Lives of the Poets (1781).

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.


  1. Did you like the book? Were you eager to keep reading? It is on my to-do list too, but I'm not sure I'm going to ever read it if it isn't a "good read."

  2. I did like it, but I wouldn't exactly say that I was eager to keep reading. It helped that I had a lovely three-volume set from UVA's Alderman library, decorated with delicate ink illustrations. Altogether, it was over 1200 pages and in some places I was very interested, and in others, it dragged.

  3. I slog through difficult books and therefore, tend to avoid them. Is that bad? I don't care. I'm currently still trying to read that biography about Eleanor Marx, but I got the Elvis Costello memoir for my birthday and am really looking forward to that once I get through Eleanor.