‘Samuel Johnson: The Struggle’ by Jeffrey Meyers
If you survey the geography of modern letters, three books stand out as signposts marking the beginning of paths that lead decisively away from all that went before. Augustine’s “Confessions,” the first memoir of an inner life, is one such work. So is Miguel de Cervantes’ “Don Quixote,” which is the first inarguably modern novel. The third is James Boswell’s “The Life of Samuel Johnson,” the earliest recognizable modern biography.
In our era, scholarship -- particularly that of Edmund Wilson and Donald Greene -- has been unsparing with regard to Boswell’s ignorance of some facts about his subject and his deliberate withholding of others. He was, in these critics’ estimation, a myth-maker.
Fair enough -- and so what? What’s crucial about Boswell’s book is not that all the relevant categories are not appropriately filled in but that the author created the categories. His is the first biography to recognize that personal history, habits, eccentricities, style and achievements were inextricably intertwined in what we would call personality.
“The Life of Samuel Johnson” is modern because at its center is the first recognizable example of that now ubiquitous figure, the celebrity, the leading figure in what was his era’s foremost expressive art, literature. Boswell, then, is the prototype for both the biographer and the fan, as Johnson is of both subject and obsessional interest.
Johnson might as well have been commenting on the animating -- and enduring -- significance of Boswell’s method when he wrote in his life of Addison, “History may be formed from permanent monuments and records; but Lives can only be written from personal knowledge, which is growing every day less, and in a short time is lost forever.”
In a later work, he would observe, "[S]ilent excellencies are soon forgotten; and those minute peculiarities which discriminate every man from all others, if they are not soon recorded by those whom personal knowledge enables to observe them, are irrevocably lost.”
Next year is the tercentenary of Johnson’s birth, and those who have forgotten snippets from his dictionary or the bits of Boswell’s work they read in school will find no better way to renew acquaintance with the great man than Jeffrey Meyers’ “Samuel Johnson: The Struggle.”
Meyers, a prolific Berkeley-based critic and literary scholar, has produced a wonderfully accessible life that incorporates the traditional sources and the best contemporary research, as well as original and persuasive interpretations of Johnson’s singular personality and his far-reaching literary influence. This is one of those rare works that does equal justice to the standards of the academy and to an intelligent reader’s desire to be both edified and entertainingly engaged.
Meyers brings something else to his approach that’s absolutely essential when dealing with a figure such as Johnson, whose achievements were as colossal as his persona was touchingly, sometimes morbidly, contradictory. That is balance. Although Meyers does not shy away from the more potentially salacious facts of Johnson’s life -- particularly the always controversial question of whether his taste for sadomasochistic sex was metaphoric or actual -- neither does he make more of them than empathy requires.
Yes, Johnson’s longtime muse and patroness, Hester Thrales, probably did chain the great man and whip him, but in Meyers’ calm hands, it’s simply another facet of the profound and lacerating inner turmoil that Johnson had to overcome to emerge as our English-language literature’s first great man of letters.
Another strength Meyers brings to his project is a modesty and discretion admirably suited to the subject. Johnson’s overwhelming eloquence -- indeed, his primal role in defining what we since have considered eloquence -- has frequently lured unwary commentators into the fallacy of imitative form. Meyers is content to allow Johnson and his magnificent contemporaries to speak for themselves and let insight and persuasive interpretation stand as his contribution to this “Life.”
Meyers’ account is informed by profound but unsentimental sympathy for his subject’s physical and emotional situation. Even by the standards of the 18th century, Johnson was a personally unlovely figure. He was tall, shambling and -- as soon as his financial position allowed -- inclined to gluttony when it came to food and drink.
He was blind in one eye and deaf in one ear, and his face was terribly scarred by the tubercular lesions and smallpox he had endured as a child. He suffered several emotional breakdowns and battled throughout his life with depression. He was -- even by the none-too-fastidious standards of his day -- physically dirty and careless of his clothing. He had a morbid terror of being alone, which makes his legendarily entertaining performance in company seem somehow touching.
Worst of all, he suffered from early manhood with what we can now recognize as Tourette’s syndrome, and the uncontrolled tics and repetitive motions the condition imposed on him were the first things that impressed everyone who met him, even after he became famous as the author of the first authoritative dictionary of the English language. Yet nearly all who came to know him in more than passing esteemed him as a surpassing wit and arbiter of taste -- and, often, of politics.
Meyers’ approach to this seething caldron of a man is clear from this book’s introduction: “Samuel Johnson -- moralist, poet, essayist, critic, dictionary maker, conversationalist and larger-than-life personality -- had a formidable intellect and a passion for ideas. A man of humble background, he used his great mind and dominant character to overcome his physical defects, complete ambitious literary projects and gain acceptance and honors. He also had a compassionate heart and a heroic capacity for suffering. He endured constant pain, long years of profound depression and two decades of failure. Ford Madox Ford called him ‘the most tragic of all our major literary figures.’ ”
What’s ultimately so satisfying about this exemplary biography is that it not only makes good on the expansive promise of that paragraph, but it also does full justice to the ever-remarkable Samuel Johnson.
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