Ford Madox Ford declared Samuel Johnson "the most tragic of all our major literary figures." Blessed with a formidable intellect and a burning passion for ideas, Johnson also struggled throughout his life with mental instability and numerous physical defects. One of the most illustrious figures of the English literary tradition, Johnson made his fame as poet, essayist, critic, dictionary-maker, conversationalist, and all-around larger-than-life personality. His success was all the greater for the adversity he had to overcome in achieving it.
Drawing on a lifetime of study of Johnson and his era, as well as a wide array of new archival materials, noted biographer Jeffrey Meyers tells the extraordinary story of one of the great geniuses of English letters. Johnson emerges in his portrait as a mass of contradictions: lazy and energetic, aggressive and tender, melancholy and witty, comforted yet tormented by religion. He was physically repulsive and slovenly in dress and habits, but his social ideas were progressive and humane--he strongly opposed slavery and the imperial exploitation of indigenous peoples. He gave generously to the poor and homeless, rescued prostitutes, and defended criminals who'd been condemned to hang. But these charitable acts could not dispel the darkness that clouded his world: overwhelming guilt and fear of eternal damnation.
A masterful portrait of a brilliant and tormented figure, this book reintroduces a new generation of readers to the heroic Dr. Johnson.
"*Starred Review* The second major new biography anticipating the natal tercentenary of the predominant figure in eighteenth-century English literature is by a much more prolific biographer than Peter Martin, whose fine Samuel Johnson (2008) took Johnson's melancholy as its organizing theme. Meyers, whose previous subjects include movie stars, painters, and twentieth-century writers, structures his life around Johnson's struggles not just with his morbid cast of mind but to accomplish virtually everything he achieved. That difference in emphasis has little effect on the core story both biographers tell, which is one of a rise from poverty to preeminence achieved despite great physical (Johnson had Tourette's syndrome, a blind eye, and partial deafness) as well as psychological handicaps. Meyers, however, celebrates Johnson the author more than Martin does. He argues the quality of Johnson's poems, essays, biocritical sketches, the philosophical romance Rasselas, and even the sermons he wrote for his clerical friend John Taylor by examining Johnson's craft. If he provides less than Martin on some of the figures around Johnson, such as the helpers with his great dictionary, he provides much more on the higher-profile likes of Edmund Burke and Fanny Burney. More than Martin, he makes us want to read his subject. Surely that is the greatest service a writer's biographer could ever perform.--Olson, Ray Copyright 2008 Booklist"
From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Publisher's Weekly Review:
"Dr. Johnson was one of the most keenly observed figures in his time, and with the second book of the season anticipating the 2009 tercentenary of his birth (after Peter Martin's, published by Harvard in September), he remains a massive, grotesque genius who continues to haunt us. Popularly written by prolific biographer and literary critic Meyers (Hemingway), this departs from a strict chronology to narrate significant events and their meaning for Johnson. A central concern involves one of Johnson's darkest secrets, which Meyers says other biographers have evaded: his masochistic sexuality at the hands of his confidante Mrs. Hester Thrale. The biography also speculates on other aspects of Johnson's sex life, both during his marriage to a much older woman and after her death. But Meyers's book is balanced and accomplishes much else. In discussing the great Dictionary that made Johnson famous (and led to a royal pension to ease his hardscrabble life), the Rambler and Idlers essays, Johnson's edition of Shakespeare and Lives of the Poets, Meyers goes to the heart of a tortured, contradictory and pessimistic sage whose self-lacerating personality, says Meyers, would come to influence modernists as disparate as Woolf, Beckett and Nabokov. 19 illus. (Dec.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved"
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved