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Samuel Johnson: A Biography

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Bewigged, muscular and for his day unusually tall, adorned in soiled, rumpled clothes, beset by involuntary tics, opinionated, powered in his conversation by a prodigious memory and intellect, Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) was in his life a literary and social icon as no other age has produced. "Johnsonianissimus," as Boswell called him, became in the hands of his first biogr Bewigged, muscular and for his day unusually tall, adorned in soiled, rumpled clothes, beset by involuntary tics, opinionated, powered in his conversation by a prodigious memory and intellect, Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) was in his life a literary and social icon as no other age has produced. "Johnsonianissimus," as Boswell called him, became in the hands of his first biographers the rationalist epitome and sage of Enlightenment. These cliches--though they contain elements of truth--distort the complexity of the public and private Johnson. Peter Martin portrays a Johnson wracked by recriminations, self-doubt, and depression--a man whose religious faith seems only to have deepened his fears. His essays, scholarship, biography, journalism, travel writing, sermons, fables, as well as other forms of prose and poetry in which he probed himself and the world around him, Martin shows, constituted rational triumphs against despair and depression. It is precisely the combination of enormous intelligence and frank personal weakness that makes Johnson's writing so compelling. Benefiting from recent critical scholarship that has explored new attitudes toward Johnson, Martin's biography gives us a human and sympathetic portrait of Dr. Johnson. Johnson's criticism of colonial expansion, his advocacy for the abolition of slavery, his encouragement of women writers, his treatment of his female friends as equals, and his concern for the underprivileged and poor make him a very "modern" figure. The Johnson that emerges from this enthralling biography, published for the tercentenary of Johnson's birth, is still the foremost figure of his age but a more rebellious, unpredictable, flawed, and sympathetic figure than has been previously known.


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Bewigged, muscular and for his day unusually tall, adorned in soiled, rumpled clothes, beset by involuntary tics, opinionated, powered in his conversation by a prodigious memory and intellect, Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) was in his life a literary and social icon as no other age has produced. "Johnsonianissimus," as Boswell called him, became in the hands of his first biogr Bewigged, muscular and for his day unusually tall, adorned in soiled, rumpled clothes, beset by involuntary tics, opinionated, powered in his conversation by a prodigious memory and intellect, Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) was in his life a literary and social icon as no other age has produced. "Johnsonianissimus," as Boswell called him, became in the hands of his first biographers the rationalist epitome and sage of Enlightenment. These cliches--though they contain elements of truth--distort the complexity of the public and private Johnson. Peter Martin portrays a Johnson wracked by recriminations, self-doubt, and depression--a man whose religious faith seems only to have deepened his fears. His essays, scholarship, biography, journalism, travel writing, sermons, fables, as well as other forms of prose and poetry in which he probed himself and the world around him, Martin shows, constituted rational triumphs against despair and depression. It is precisely the combination of enormous intelligence and frank personal weakness that makes Johnson's writing so compelling. Benefiting from recent critical scholarship that has explored new attitudes toward Johnson, Martin's biography gives us a human and sympathetic portrait of Dr. Johnson. Johnson's criticism of colonial expansion, his advocacy for the abolition of slavery, his encouragement of women writers, his treatment of his female friends as equals, and his concern for the underprivileged and poor make him a very "modern" figure. The Johnson that emerges from this enthralling biography, published for the tercentenary of Johnson's birth, is still the foremost figure of his age but a more rebellious, unpredictable, flawed, and sympathetic figure than has been previously known.

30 review for Samuel Johnson: A Biography

  1. 4 out of 5

    Orin

    Anyone who is tired of reading another biography of Dr. Johnson is tired of life.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Smiley

    I enjoyed reading Prof. W. Jackson Bate's "Samuel Johnson" immensely in 2008 and today (October 13) I was reluctant to buy this one and wondered what I should learn more. However, I couldn't help deciding to have this copy when I read this quote by the formidable man of letters selected by the author (p. vi). To strive with difficulties, and to conquer them, is the highest human felicity; the next, is to strive and deserve to conquer. This definitely implies his vision on AQ and RQ. Therefore, if I enjoyed reading Prof. W. Jackson Bate's "Samuel Johnson" immensely in 2008 and today (October 13) I was reluctant to buy this one and wondered what I should learn more. However, I couldn't help deciding to have this copy when I read this quote by the formidable man of letters selected by the author (p. vi). To strive with difficulties, and to conquer them, is the highest human felicity; the next, is to strive and deserve to conquer. This definitely implies his vision on AQ and RQ. Therefore, if you are a 'Johnsonianissimus' as coined by James Boswell, his great biographer, this biography is a must for everyone admiring Dr Samuel Johnson since we can learn a lot from his biographies as well as from his words and works.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Marc Maitland

    A masterly work, meticulously researched and most engagingly written. From his earliest days as a small boy in Lichfield, through his abortive Oxford years, through his country-wide tours, high days and low days in London, his loves and losses, right through to the melodrama of his last dying days in Bolt Court off Fleet Street, no fact of The Doctor’s life is left unearthed. Admittedly, a long book, almost 500 pages without footnotes, with fairly long chapters, but split up quite logically, one A masterly work, meticulously researched and most engagingly written. From his earliest days as a small boy in Lichfield, through his abortive Oxford years, through his country-wide tours, high days and low days in London, his loves and losses, right through to the melodrama of his last dying days in Bolt Court off Fleet Street, no fact of The Doctor’s life is left unearthed. Admittedly, a long book, almost 500 pages without footnotes, with fairly long chapters, but split up quite logically, one of its redeeming features is that the chapters themselves are split up into smaller, numbered sub-chapters, which gives the reader a natural break, if and when reading a whole chapter would be impossibly time-consuming. I confess that I read the book in very small does over a period of 5 months, from July to December, which I do not necessarily recommend as the best way to read such a volume. The book is also generously illustrated with pictures of Dr. Johnson and his entourage, and there is a nice little map of 18th Century London at the beginning, depicting those places of Johnsonian relevance, including Thomas Davies’ bookshop in Covent Garden, where Johnson met Boswell, which is now the site of a nice café sometimes frequented by your reviewer. Overall, this is a great book for those wishing to be introduced to the life and work of the good Doctor, and a very decent reappraisal for those already so acquainted.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Peter

    One of two new biographies of the Great Literary Genius of the 18th Century, Samuel Johnson. A well written telling of his life with intriguing observations on religion, politics and of course literature.

  5. 5 out of 5

    James

    “Imagine having the balls to write a biography of Johnson after Boswell.” Such was the text a friend of mine sent me after I told him I was reading Peter Martin’s Samuel Johnson: A Biography. Anyone after 1791 has to find his place under Boswell’s shadow, retelling the same stories we already know, or seek a spot just outside of it, complicating the portrait and challenging our assumptions. Martin has done the latter--but not as a literary firebrand. While Boswell’s Life presents Johnson “dynami “Imagine having the balls to write a biography of Johnson after Boswell.” Such was the text a friend of mine sent me after I told him I was reading Peter Martin’s Samuel Johnson: A Biography. Anyone after 1791 has to find his place under Boswell’s shadow, retelling the same stories we already know, or seek a spot just outside of it, complicating the portrait and challenging our assumptions. Martin has done the latter--but not as a literary firebrand. While Boswell’s Life presents Johnson “dynamically in scenes among friends and in all sorts of social situations which make him come alive … it perpetuates a popular perception of Johnson which flourished in his own lifetime, chiefly as a personality and truculent conversationalist” (xx). That version of Johnson is what attracted many of us to him in the first place and readers (such as my friend mentioned above) may understandably resist having their perception of Johnson--a perception that has entertained and enlightened them for their reading lives--revised. We might feel like Johnson himself when he was assured by Boswell that David Garrick would not deny Johnson a favor: “Sir,” Johnson told him, “I have known David Garrick longer than you have done, and I know no right you have to talk to me on the subject.” Johnson would not suffer this newly-met figure to tell him about a dear friend of his. Readers may think the same of Peter Martin. They need not. Martin does not have an angle or an agenda, other than to offer a comprehensive portrait of the lexicographer as a troubled and fascinating man. His choice of epigraph--the opening of Rasselas--reflects the portrait of Johnson that follows. (It also suggests Martin’s skill as an author: imagine having to choose an epigraph from the thousands of memorable pieces of Johnsonia!) Readers still get the rollicking great Cham in his undersized wig, “having a frisk” with his friends and always hustling, hustling, hustling with publishers, but also the melancholy, doubtful, and irritable man who did so much but kept chastising himself for indolence. Readers also learn much about the Thrales and how Mrs. Thrales took in Johnson just as Johnson took in Dr. Levett and others. There’s also a great deal to learn about eighteenth-century medicine, politics, and literature. The greatest compliment is what others may see as a defect: the book has no epilogue. Johnson dies, and then there’s nothing, other than three scant paragraphs, about how his friends reacted. The reader gets nothing about how the public reacted, the reasons we turn to Johnson today, or recent scholarship. It ends as Johnson would have wanted: “Place a stone over my grave so that my remains may not be disturbed,” Johnson stated, asking for a silent monument of dignity to mark the end of an oft-troubled life. Martin’s book is a similar stone that seeks not to disturb the remains of Johnson by dwelling (like Jeffrey Meyers) on the issue of the padlocks or attempting to psychoanalyze its subject. Instead, Martin asks the reader to think about Johnson as Hamlet does his father: less the “goodly king” idolized by Horatio and more as “a man, take him for all in all.” We shall not look upon his like again.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Adam Stevenson

    This was a little disappointing, the writing was not immediate and some of the comments very odd - Johnson would have made a rubbish TV guest. The revelations promised never really came. However the book was very good at his relationship with Tetty and his dying days particularly.

  7. 5 out of 5

    John

    I have to state at the outset that my rating of this book can't be fair. The issue arises when I read multiple biographies of the same subject, one after the other. In that event the first begins to fade in memory, especially when such vivid and engaging narratives as those by Richard Holmes ("Dr. Johnson and Mr. Savage") and Jeffrey Meyers ("Samuel Johnson: The Struggle") are in the mix. But it's telling, I suppose, that the effect of reading Martin first and then Holmes and Meyers is that Holme I have to state at the outset that my rating of this book can't be fair. The issue arises when I read multiple biographies of the same subject, one after the other. In that event the first begins to fade in memory, especially when such vivid and engaging narratives as those by Richard Holmes ("Dr. Johnson and Mr. Savage") and Jeffrey Meyers ("Samuel Johnson: The Struggle") are in the mix. But it's telling, I suppose, that the effect of reading Martin first and then Holmes and Meyers is that Holmes and Meyers nearly obliterate all memory of Martin. I do recall my impression that Martin has given us a perfectly servicible life of Johnson, but why can I remember so little of its particulars? I don't know, but I don't intend to read his book again to discover the reason. Merged review: The problem with reading one biography after another of the same individual is that each of them tend to become rather vague, vague in the memory of someone of my advanced age, in any event. This sort of fading is particularly severe when the work of Richard Holmes and Jeffrey Meyers appears in the mix. So my rating can't be fair. Nonetheless, I am left with the impression that Martin is rather reticent, perhaps timid - or even unimaginative - in his pursuit of Johnson, certainly by comparison with Holmes and Meyers, the force of whose narratives remains fresh in recollection.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Jesse

    Someone asked me the other day what the point of another Samuel Johnson biography was after Boswell, and I answered that it's mostly for the nasty details that Boswell left out. That isn't entirely it, though-- this is a pleasant and engaging read that draws copiously on Johnson's remaining diaries, the diaries of his friends, and his various correspondences, many of which are illuminating and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny (in a dorky sort of way: chances are if you laugh out loud at this in Someone asked me the other day what the point of another Samuel Johnson biography was after Boswell, and I answered that it's mostly for the nasty details that Boswell left out. That isn't entirely it, though-- this is a pleasant and engaging read that draws copiously on Johnson's remaining diaries, the diaries of his friends, and his various correspondences, many of which are illuminating and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny (in a dorky sort of way: chances are if you laugh out loud at this in public, as I did, you've sacrified some social grace to the nerdy pursuit of literature). It's true, though, that setting out to top Boswell is risky business, especially when you write like Peter Martin, whose copy editor was evidently not paid enough for a second pass. All sorts of awkward, clumsy, confusing, and downright grammatically incorrect sentences throughout, which can be distracting. But otherwise this is a fun enough read and there's nothing to be lost in revisiting Johnson from another perspective.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Dad

    Martin tells Johnson’s story chronologically, but with each phase in Johnson’s life, the very human side is emphasized. Johnson’s reputation as a curmudgeon seems deserved, but Martin puts it in context: Johnson suffered from what might be Tourette’s syndrome or some other medical malady that caused him to act suddenly and uncontrollably (and make those in his presence think he was being rude or vulgar). More interesting than a medical diagnosis of his behavior is how the constant shadow of pove Martin tells Johnson’s story chronologically, but with each phase in Johnson’s life, the very human side is emphasized. Johnson’s reputation as a curmudgeon seems deserved, but Martin puts it in context: Johnson suffered from what might be Tourette’s syndrome or some other medical malady that caused him to act suddenly and uncontrollably (and make those in his presence think he was being rude or vulgar). More interesting than a medical diagnosis of his behavior is how the constant shadow of poverty haunted Johnson, even into old age. He often blamed himself for indolence yet produced an amazing output, including a complete dictionary of the English language in ten years. And he was likely manic depressive—he called his dark moods “the black dog”—swinging violently from humor to humor. Modern psychology and medicine could have made a world of difference in Johnson’s life, but it was a remarkable life all the same.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Mike Horne

    Quote from Christopher Hitchens (The Atlantic) "Having been disappointed by the failure of Walter Jackson Bate to tell this important tale aright in his immense 1978 biographical study, I was full of admiration for Peter Martin for managing to summarize it so deftly." http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200903... I read the Bate version and remember liking it. I enjoyed Peter Martin's also. But I am going to guess that Martin is a friend of Hitchens. I wish I had Bate's version handy to compare the two. Quote from Christopher Hitchens (The Atlantic) "Having been disappointed by the failure of Walter Jackson Bate to tell this important tale aright in his immense 1978 biographical study, I was full of admiration for Peter Martin for managing to summarize it so deftly." http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200903... I read the Bate version and remember liking it. I enjoyed Peter Martin's also. But I am going to guess that Martin is a friend of Hitchens. I wish I had Bate's version handy to compare the two. Martin was deft but not great. Hitchens is a much better writer. His review felt like a fluff piece. I wish Martin had explored the relationship between Mr. Thrale and Johnson.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Edmundking

    Published for the 300th anniversary of Johnson's birth, this is a competent but unexceptional introduction to Johnson. There are no new insights here, but it covers the ground adequately enough. A good copy-editor would have helped, though -- there's a weird disjunct between Johnson, one of the great stylists of the English language, and Martin, who is capable of some jaw-slackeningly cluttered and clumsy prose. Published for the 300th anniversary of Johnson's birth, this is a competent but unexceptional introduction to Johnson. There are no new insights here, but it covers the ground adequately enough. A good copy-editor would have helped, though -- there's a weird disjunct between Johnson, one of the great stylists of the English language, and Martin, who is capable of some jaw-slackeningly cluttered and clumsy prose.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Adrian

    Full record of the great writer's life. In rather humourless fashion Martin draws out the emotional, haunted and generous Johnson who frequently deviated from one emotional extreme to another, was dogged by depression and took numerous strangers into his home and gave them allowances to live on. Speculates that SJ may have had a form of Tourette's. Full record of the great writer's life. In rather humourless fashion Martin draws out the emotional, haunted and generous Johnson who frequently deviated from one emotional extreme to another, was dogged by depression and took numerous strangers into his home and gave them allowances to live on. Speculates that SJ may have had a form of Tourette's.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Daniel DeLappe

    Hard read, but worth the time

  14. 5 out of 5

    Phil

    A must read on thisl Johnson's 300th birthday. This is the definitive biography and is a thrill to read. Peter Martin makes Johnson come to life vividly and enjoyably A must read on thisl Johnson's 300th birthday. This is the definitive biography and is a thrill to read. Peter Martin makes Johnson come to life vividly and enjoyably

  15. 5 out of 5

    Ci

    A very enjoyable read.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Ashley Adams

  17. 4 out of 5

    Christopher Fried

  18. 5 out of 5

    Marcus

  19. 4 out of 5

    SamR

  20. 5 out of 5

    Jason

  21. 4 out of 5

    Angela

  22. 4 out of 5

    Steve Nordlund

  23. 4 out of 5

    Walter Otto

  24. 4 out of 5

    John Ervin

  25. 4 out of 5

    Mark Shipton-smith

  26. 4 out of 5

    Jennifer

  27. 4 out of 5

    Blain

    From WQ

  28. 5 out of 5

    Matthew Cheney

  29. 5 out of 5

    Tony Jackson

  30. 4 out of 5

    Roy

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