A Great Portrait of an Age

The Life of Samuel Johnson - James Boswell, David Womersley, David P. Womersley

This is an abridgment of Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, which as it is runs to over 500 pages. I am glad I read it, but I’m also glad I read an abridgment (an ebook downloaded for free from The Gutenberg Project). In the preface the editor tells us he “omitted most of Boswell’s criticisms, comments, and notes, all of Johnson’s opinions in legal cases, most of the letters, and parts of the conversation dealing with matters which were of greater importance in Boswell’s day than now.” I don’t know I’d have been able to endure the full text--at least first time around. The book grew on me.

Johnson was famous as a literary critic (particularly of Shakespeare) and for his assembly of A Dictionary of the English Language. Boswell’s biography of the man has been described as “the most famous single work of biographical art in the whole of literature.” I decided to read it because its one of the works in Good Reading’s “100 Significant Books” and I found it practically a college education by itself reading the books on that list.

I did find it enormously entertaining. Johnson is known for his wit, which is good because Boswell in his narrative initially struck me as singularly humorless--and far too adoring. At one point Boswell admits he “cannot help worshipping” Johnson. And although I in the end I found him rather endearing, at first it was hard for me to find much to adore in Johnson, who seemed through much of this to be such a sanctimonious, misogynist prig. Mind you, Boswell does warn that Johnson loved to be contrary, play devil’s advocate, so it can be hard at times to know what should be taken seriously. Nevertheless, a lot of Johnson’s views, his love of rank and monarchy, with everyone keeping their place, his contempt for democracy, was pretty consistent. I could put it down to the times, were I not aware that after all this is a contemporary of Benjamin Franklin. As an American, Johnson makes me glad we separated from the Mother Country. He was a devout Anglican and Tory and after reading his views I can have no doubt in his place and time I’d be a Whig, his bete noir. For example:

“Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hinder legs. It is not done well; but you are surprized to find it done at all.”


I asked him if it was not hard that one deviation from chastity should so absolutely ruin a young woman. Johnson. "Why no, Sir; it is the great principle which she is taught. When she has given up that principle, she has given up every notion of female honour and virtue, which are all included in chastity.


He thought portrait-painting an improper employment for a woman. “Publick practice of any art... and staring in men’s faces, is very indelicate in a female.” (He also believed a husband would be disgraced by allowing his wife to sing publicly for hire.)


[Johnson] had long indulged most unfavourable sentiments of our fellow-subjects in America. For as early as 1769... he had said of them, “Sir, they are a race of convicts, and out to be thankful for anything we allow them short of hanging. (Johnson wrote a pamphlet attacking the American patriots: Taxation No Tyranny.)

At the same time there were lines that made me smile, or that I did find wise. For instance, Johnson, that compiler of a dictionary, put in this definition of a Lexicographer: “a writer of dictionaries, a harmless drudge.” And I was taken with these two passages:

After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley's ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I shall never forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, "I refute it THUS."


To my question, whether we might not fortify our minds for the approach of death, he answered, in a passion, No, Sir, let it alone. It matters not how a man dies, but how he lives. The act of dying is not of importance, it lasts so short a time.” He added (with an earnest look,) 'A man knows it must be so, and submits. It will do him no good to whine.’

And there are so many sayings I’d heard of that I found could be traced to this biography--about second marriages: “the triumph of hope over experience.” “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” “Hell is paved with good intentions.” “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”

And this paints not just a picture of Johnson, but his times and contemporaries and companions: Oliver Goldsmith, the writer, David Garrick the actor, Sir Joshua Reynolds, the painter, politician Edmund Burke, in particular, but mentions of historians Edward Gibbons and Mrs Macaulay, novelists Richardson and Fielding and Fanny Burney and Richard Sheridan the playwright--even King George III. I don’t know that I can say I closed the book loving Samuel Johnson--but I did wind up loving Boswell’s biography of him.