Samuel Johnson: A Biography

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Overview

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 clichés—though they contain elements of truth—distort the complexity of the ...

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Overview

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 clichés—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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Editorial Reviews

Wall Street Journal

Modern biographers are aware of the competition. They have to write a first-rate book about Johnson or hear from critics that they've foolishly entered the wrong league. And a number of scholars, notably Paul Fussell and W. Jackson Bate, have given us remarkable portraits. They're now joined by Peter Martin, whose Samuel Johnson: A Biography is a model of its kind: a deeply felt, beautifully written account of a personality about whom we cannot know enough.
— George Sim Johnston

Chicago Tribune

A fetching new version of the life of Samuel Johnson.
— Julia Keller

Washington Post Book World

Martin brings alive with novelistic detail such famous scenes as Johnson's youthful ride to London to be touched by Queen Anne for "the king's evil"—scrofula, which was believed to be curable by a touch from royalty; his public rejection of the Earl of Chesterfield's 11th-hour patronage of his dictionary; and the actor David Garrick's keyhole spying on (and later parody of) Johnson's amorous pursuit of Mrs. Johnson. For a man who bragged and twitched and stank, Johnson had a lot of friends, and Martin superintends them like a film director: poet Charlotte Lennox, painter Joshua Reynolds, novelist Fanny Burney and, of course, future laird and biographer James Boswell.
— Michael Sims

Washington Times

Meticulously researched and well written.
— James Srodes

Wilson Quarterly

Martin has spent a lifetime steeped in Johnson's world, having written definitive biographies of Boswell and of Edmond Malone, the Irish Shakespearean scholar without whose help the unstable Boswell might never have finished his massive biography...As a character, Johnson turns out to be not only funny and wildly eccentric—as we always knew he was—but deeply poignant. I was moved to tears by Martin's biography.
— Brooke Allen

The Atlantic

[An] outstanding new biography.
— Christopher Hitchens

Globe and Mail

The story is well told, quotations from Boswell and Johnson are frequent and judicious, the anecdotes (familiar to some) are enlivening, and a picture of the fierce, complicated, manically eccentric genius emerges that will provoke admiration and wonder.
— Rex Murphy

New York Times Review of Books

Martin offers a convincing psychological study.
— Leah Price

New Criterion

[Samuel Johnson] will give readers a good sense of this extraordinary individual. For those who already know a fair bit about the subject, Martin will fill out the picture more amply.
— Pat Rogers

Choice

As author also of A Life of James Boswell, Martin knows the territory and obviously enjoys it...The tercentenary of the birth of so large a figure is more than enough reason for new perspectives, and Martin's work is worthwhile.
— G. Shivel

New York Review of Books

A lively new biography, a book well seasoned with good stories, most of which do not seek always to show the Doctor in a better light...Martin is sympathetic to Johnson and equally sympathetic to the truth about him. He has hitherto written excellent biographies of both Boswell and Edmond Malone—two of the Doctor's brightest satellites—and he turns to Johnson with a strong and nuanced sense of how he was, as much as anything, the figment of a great many busy pens, not least his own.
— Andrew O'Hagan

National Post

[Martin] is a literary conduit, bringing Johnson from the 18th-century English Tory world of letters down to the modern reader...[He is] an author who writes with an eloquent propinquity, a delightful sense of companionship, about a figure otherwise clouded in antiquity...He shows why the man is still so influential and—important this—still read.
— Michael Coren

Ottawa Citizen

[Martin] writes with an eloquent propinquity, a delightful sense of companionship, about a figure otherwise clouded in antiquity. Martin is strikingly good...on Johnson's literary achievement. He shows why the man is still so influential and—important this—still read.
— Michael Coren

Henry Hitchings
Building on his previous work on James Boswell, Samuel Johnson's most celebrated biographer, Peter Martin has written a humane, coherent and accessible life of the great eighteenth-century polymath, deftly and sympathetically exploring his personal relationships and psyche while also locating him in the literary culture of his age.
Robert Folkenflik
As Johnson's three hundredth birthday approaches, the time is ripe for a new biography that takes into account all we have learned about Johnson in this century and the later years of the last. Martin knows and tells. The result is a highly readable, deeply informed book that should find a broad and appreciative audience.
Harold Bloom
Peter Martin's biography of Samuel Johnson is a profoundly poignant and eloquent account of the Western world's greatest literary critic. It is superior even to Martin's valuable biography of Boswell.
Wall Street Journal - George Sim Johnston
Modern biographers are aware of the competition. They have to write a first-rate book about Johnson or hear from critics that they've foolishly entered the wrong league. And a number of scholars, notably Paul Fussell and W. Jackson Bate, have given us remarkable portraits. They're now joined by Peter Martin, whose Samuel Johnson: A Biography is a model of its kind: a deeply felt, beautifully written account of a personality about whom we cannot know enough.
Chicago Tribune - Julia Keller
A fetching new version of the life of Samuel Johnson.
Washington Post Book World - Michael Sims
Martin brings alive with novelistic detail such famous scenes as Johnson's youthful ride to London to be touched by Queen Anne for "the king's evil"--scrofula, which was believed to be curable by a touch from royalty; his public rejection of the Earl of Chesterfield's 11th-hour patronage of his dictionary; and the actor David Garrick's keyhole spying on (and later parody of) Johnson's amorous pursuit of Mrs. Johnson. For a man who bragged and twitched and stank, Johnson had a lot of friends, and Martin superintends them like a film director: poet Charlotte Lennox, painter Joshua Reynolds, novelist Fanny Burney and, of course, future laird and biographer James Boswell.
Washington Times - James Srodes
Meticulously researched and well written.
Wilson Quarterly - Brooke Allen
Martin has spent a lifetime steeped in Johnson's world, having written definitive biographies of Boswell and of Edmond Malone, the Irish Shakespearean scholar without whose help the unstable Boswell might never have finished his massive biography...As a character, Johnson turns out to be not only funny and wildly eccentric--as we always knew he was--but deeply poignant. I was moved to tears by Martin's biography.
The Atlantic - Christopher Hitchens
[An] outstanding new biography.
Globe and Mail - Rex Murphy
The story is well told, quotations from Boswell and Johnson are frequent and judicious, the anecdotes (familiar to some) are enlivening, and a picture of the fierce, complicated, manically eccentric genius emerges that will provoke admiration and wonder.
New York Times Review of Books - Leah Price
Martin offers a convincing psychological study.
New Criterion - Pat Rogers
[Samuel Johnson] will give readers a good sense of this extraordinary individual. For those who already know a fair bit about the subject, Martin will fill out the picture more amply.
Choice - G. Shivel
As author also of A Life of James Boswell, Martin knows the territory and obviously enjoys it...The tercentenary of the birth of so large a figure is more than enough reason for new perspectives, and Martin's work is worthwhile.
New York Review of Books - Andrew O'Hagan
A lively new biography, a book well seasoned with good stories, most of which do not seek always to show the Doctor in a better light...Martin is sympathetic to Johnson and equally sympathetic to the truth about him. He has hitherto written excellent biographies of both Boswell and Edmond Malone--two of the Doctor's brightest satellites--and he turns to Johnson with a strong and nuanced sense of how he was, as much as anything, the figment of a great many busy pens, not least his own.
National Post - Michael Coren
[Martin] writes with an eloquent propinquity, a delightful sense of companionship, about a figure otherwise clouded in antiquity. Martin is strikingly good...on Johnson's literary achievement. He shows why the man is still so influential and--important this--still read.
Chicago Tribune
A fetching new version of the life of Samuel Johnson.
— Julia Keller
Wall Street Journal
Modern biographers are aware of the competition. They have to write a first-rate book about Johnson or hear from critics that they've foolishly entered the wrong league. And a number of scholars, notably Paul Fussell and W. Jackson Bate, have given us remarkable portraits. They're now joined by Peter Martin, whose Samuel Johnson: A Biography is a model of its kind: a deeply felt, beautifully written account of a personality about whom we cannot know enough.
— George Sim Johnston
Choice
As author also of A Life of James Boswell, Martin knows the territory and obviously enjoys it...The tercentenary of the birth of so large a figure is more than enough reason for new perspectives, and Martin's work is worthwhile.
— G. Shivel
Washington Times
Meticulously researched and well written.
— James Srodes
Globe and Mail
The story is well told, quotations from Boswell and Johnson are frequent and judicious, the anecdotes (familiar to some) are enlivening, and a picture of the fierce, complicated, manically eccentric genius emerges that will provoke admiration and wonder.
— Rex Murphy
Washington Post Book World
Martin brings alive with novelistic detail such famous scenes as Johnson's youthful ride to London to be touched by Queen Anne for "the king's evil"--scrofula, which was believed to be curable by a touch from royalty; his public rejection of the Earl of Chesterfield's 11th-hour patronage of his dictionary; and the actor David Garrick's keyhole spying on (and later parody of) Johnson's amorous pursuit of Mrs. Johnson. For a man who bragged and twitched and stank, Johnson had a lot of friends, and Martin superintends them like a film director: poet Charlotte Lennox, painter Joshua Reynolds, novelist Fanny Burney and, of course, future laird and biographer James Boswell.
— Michael Sims
New York Review of Books
A lively new biography, a book well seasoned with good stories, most of which do not seek always to show the Doctor in a better light...Martin is sympathetic to Johnson and equally sympathetic to the truth about him. He has hitherto written excellent biographies of both Boswell and Edmond Malone--two of the Doctor's brightest satellites--and he turns to Johnson with a strong and nuanced sense of how he was, as much as anything, the figment of a great many busy pens, not least his own.
— Andrew O'Hagan
Ottawa Citizen
[Martin] writes with an eloquent propinquity, a delightful sense of companionship, about a figure otherwise clouded in antiquity. Martin is strikingly good...on Johnson's literary achievement. He shows why the man is still so influential and--important this--still read.
— Michael Coren
New Criterion
[Samuel Johnson] will give readers a good sense of this extraordinary individual. For those who already know a fair bit about the subject, Martin will fill out the picture more amply.
— Pat Rogers
National Post
[Martin] is a literary conduit, bringing Johnson from the 18th-century English Tory world of letters down to the modern reader...[He is] an author who writes with an eloquent propinquity, a delightful sense of companionship, about a figure otherwise clouded in antiquity...He shows why the man is still so influential and--important this--still read.
— Michael Coren
Wilson Quarterly
Martin has spent a lifetime steeped in Johnson's world, having written definitive biographies of Boswell and of Edmond Malone, the Irish Shakespearean scholar without whose help the unstable Boswell might never have finished his massive biography...As a character, Johnson turns out to be not only funny and wildly eccentric--as we always knew he was--but deeply poignant. I was moved to tears by Martin's biography.
— Brooke Allen
The Atlantic
[An] outstanding new biography.
— Christopher Hitchens
New York Times Review of Books
Martin offers a convincing psychological study.
— Leah Price
Leah Price
Martin offers a convincing psychological study
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

Famed for his dictionary, "Rambler" essays and The Lives of the English Poets, Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) remains one of the most-quoted and carefully observed authors who ever lived. On the occasion of Johnson's tercentenary, Martin (A Life of James Boswell) searches out the psychological elements covered up by Boswell and others: the immense insecurities, bouts of deep depression, corrosive self-doubt and, in his last days, despair for his very soul. He grew up the illness-wracked, nearly blind son of a backwater bookseller. Martin shows how Johnson's distant relationships with his family came to haunt him on the death of each member. Likewise, Johnson's strange mannerisms and disfigurement, marriage to a woman twice his age and poverty early in his career further shaped his psyche. Through all this, Martin says, Johnson was also a bit of a ladies' man, and notes in Johnson's journal references to the practice or condition of "M.," which, Martin speculates, stands for masturbation or defecation. Martin admirably succeeds in giving a new generation Dr. Johnson, warts and all, from the inside, though in prose that remains only serviceable. 30 b&w illus., map. (Sept.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

The year 2009 will mark the tercentenary of the birth of Samuel Johnson (1709-84), and this new biography of the English essayist, lexicographer, and literary personality will help to mark the occasion. The two subjects of Martin's previous biographies A Life of James Boswell and Edmond Malone, Shakespearean Scholar were friends and colleagues of Johnson. Martin's book emphasizes aspects of Johnson not covered by any previously published biographies-including excellent ones by W. Jackson Bate, James L. Clifford, John Wain, and, of course, James Boswell-notably Johnson's deep depressions; his liberal views on women writers, slavery, and poverty (he was not the complete Tory that others have painted him); and Johnson as a writer whose works deserve to be better known by the general public. Martin covers all the well-known facts and accomplishments of Johnson's life, and he emphasizes the turbulent times in which Johnson lived and the intriguing people he knew. Scholarly but written in an engaging manner and featuring many quotations from Johnson and his friends and acquaintances, this new portrait of a complex, multifaceted writer and thinker is highly recommended for public and academic libraries. (Illustrations and index not seen.)
—Morris Hounion

Kirkus Reviews
Reliable, readable life of 18th-century England's most celebrated intellectual, lexicographer, poet, critic, biographer, essayist, Tory, travel writer and-perhaps most of all-Personality. Few writers can approach Johnson (1709-84) more surely than Martin, biographer of the Great Man's own famous biographer (A Life of James Boswell, 2000, etc.). He does so in conventional fashion, beginning with a sketch of Johnson's hometown, Lichfield, and ending with the funeral and burial, discussing intervening events more or less chronologically. There are few surprises. Martin does argue that Johnson was, perhaps, not so adamantine a Tory as others have portrayed him, more than once declaring that it's unproductive and inaccurate to view Whig v. Tory as a simplistic struggle merely mirroring today's Right v. Left. Yet he acknowledges that Johnson strongly opposed U.S. independence (famously dismissing the principal American champions of freedom as "drivers of Negroes"), accepted a pension from George III and enjoyed the honorary Oxford doctorate arranged by a grateful government when he published a pamphlet attacking the American rebels' position on taxation. Politics aside, Martin ably shows us the enormous depths of Johnson's humanity. He was hideously scarred by scrofula, nearly blind, subject to violent twitching that suggests Tourette's, big and clumsy and taurine, often unkempt and always impecunious. Yet Johnson nonetheless married (with uneven result), had devoted friends (to whom he was fiercely devoted), opened his home to those in need, enjoyed the company of the famous (Joshua Reynolds, hometown buddy David Garrick) but also the unknown. He battled melancholy continually, railed againsthis own sometimes dilatory ways, yet when ready to work was immensely productive in a very short time, his pen flashing across the page, his mind remembering the vast libraries he'd read, his imagination soaring where few had ever gone, or ever will go, not least of all in the astonishing Dictionary. From the ordinary clay of words, Martin sculpts an impressive image of an extraordinary man.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674057371
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 11/15/2010
  • Pages: 640
  • Sales rank: 1,159,037
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Peter Martin has taught English literature on both sides of the Atlantic and is the author of A Life of James Boswell.
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Table of Contents

  • Contents

  • List of Illustrations
  • Preface

Part One, Staffordshire Youth

  1. Anecdotes of Beggary
  2. Stepping on the Duckling
  3. Leaping over the Rail
  4. Two Benefactors
  5. Part Two, Despondency and Hope

  6. Oxford: Wielding a Scholar’s Weapon
  7. Horrible Imaginings
  8. Stirrings in Birmingham
  9. Taking a Wife
  10. Part Three, Slow Rises Worth

  11. Stranger in London
  12. Sons of Misery: Finding Richard Savage
  13. ‘Slow Rises Worth by Poverty Depress’d’
  14. Wandering in the Midlands
  15. Part Four, Triumph: The Dictionary Years

  16. London Revived: A Lion in Harness
  17. A Lifeline: The Dictionary
  18. Poetic Interludes
  19. Tetty and ‘Amorous Propensities’
  20. The Triumph of the Moralist
  21. Darkness Falls
  22. Once More unto the Breach: Back to the Dictionary
  23. Part Five, Depression, Shakespeare, Travel and Anger

  24. Stalled
  25. ‘Suffering Chimeras’
  26. ‘Vain and Corrupt Imaginations’
  27. Boswell and Mrs Thrale
  28. Shakespeare and the Living World
  29. Coliseum of Beasts
  30. Back to Shakespeare and the Dictionary
  31. The Road to the Hebrides
  32. Politics and Travel
  33. Part Six, Biography and ‘The Race with Death’

  34. ‘A Very Poor Creeper upon the Earth’
  35. Biographical Straitjacket
  36. Losing Ground
  37. The Last Days

  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Acknowledgements
  • Index

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  • Posted March 10, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Superb Endeavor

    Peter Martin has done a superb job of writing this biography of Samuel Johnson. I simply could not put the book down. Mr. Martin's research was impeccable, he made me feel as though I was right there with Mr. Johnson from birth to death. Every little habit and mannerism was vividly portrayed in the man's life. He did his research and put it into words that were a delight to read and think about. Samuel Johnson had an impact on every person that ever sought to find the meaning of a word in his dictionary.

    Great job.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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