Samuel Johnson: A Biographyby Peter Martin
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
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.
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
A fetching new version of the life of Samuel Johnson.
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.
Meticulously researched and well written.
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 eccentricas we always knew he wasbut deeply poignant. I was moved to tears by Martin's biography.
[An] outstanding new biography.
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.
Martin offers a convincing psychological study.
[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.
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.
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 Malonetwo of the Doctor's brightest satellitesand 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.
[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 andimportant thisstill read.
[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 andimportant thisstill read.
The New York Times
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.
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.)
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What People are Saying About This
Robert Folkenflik, University of California, Irvine
Henry Hitchings, author of Dr Johnson's Dictionary: The Extraordinary Story of the Book that Defined the World
Meet the Author
Peter Martin has taught English on both sides of the Atlantic and is the author of A Life of James Boswell and Samuel Johnson: A Biography.
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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.