Samuel Johnson: The Struggle

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Overview

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...

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Samuel Johnson: The Struggle

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Overview

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.

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Editorial Reviews

Leah Price
Meyers [offers] a lively group portrait of Johnson's friends.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

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.)

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Library Journal

It's impossible to measure Samuel Johnson's influence on the English language. He was proficient in multiple genres-particularly poetry, essays, and criticism-and his dictionary stood as the standard until the first version of the Oxford English Dictionary(approximately 150 years later). Known for his intellect and ideals, Johnson led a life complicated by physical deformities and a tendency toward social improprieties. While he was generally well intentioned and appreciated friends in politics, the arts, the literary world, and religious circles, Johnson could also be prone to fits of anger and bouts of crying. Meyers, the author of over 20 books (e.g., Modigliani: A Life), offers several new interpretations of Johnson's life and works, most notably his marriage and sexual life, his hostility to Jonathan Swift, and his influence on five major writers of the 19th and 20th centuries. Meyers's use of details and language is lively, and his interpretation well reasoned. Recommended for all academic libraries and for public libraries as interest warrants.
—Pam Kingsbury

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465045716
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 12/1/2008
  • Pages: 400
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Jeffrey Meyers holds a Ph.D. in English literature. He has written over twenty books, and is a frequent contributor to the New Criterion, Los Angeles Times Book Review, and Times Higher Education Supplement. He lives in Kensington, California.

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