BOOKS: by Bill JamesNews Weekly
SAMUEL JOHNSON: A Biography, by Peter Martin
, April 18, 2009
A tormented but great-hearted figureSAMUEL JOHNSON: A Biography
by Peter Martin
(London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
Hardcover: 568 pages
Rec. price: AUD$74.95Talk about a loser! He was almost blind in one eye and short-sighted in the other. His face was scarred with scrofula and distorted by grimaces and tics, his figure was heavy and ungainly, and his movements were compulsive and erratic.
As he grew older his health worsened. He suffered respiratory and digestive disorders, gout, and a serious infection of the testicle which nearly necessitated an (unanaesthetised) operation.
The usual treatment for his disorders was copious bleeding, self-administered with a scalpel to a vein.
He often muttered to himself, prayed out loud, or made odd whistling and blowing noises. Some believe that he suffered from a form of Tourette's syndrome - minus the rude words.Untidy
His clothes were slovenly, and he admitted that "he did not love clean linen".
As a young man, he married a widow 20 years his senior, who became fat, alcoholic and grotesque, eventually denied him sexual relations, and died while living apart from him.
He retained a normal sexual appetite (in Boswell's bowdlerised version: "I'll come no more behind your scenes, David [Garrick]; for the white bosoms and silk stockings of your actresses excite my amorous propensities") but almost certainly did not indulge it with any other woman.
In the academic sphere he started, but failed to complete, both school and university. He also failed as a school-teacher, turned to hack writing, experienced many years of poverty, and knew what it was to sleep in the streets, and to be jailed for debt.
His habit was to stay up until well after midnight, and then sleep in until noon, but he suffered resultant agonies of guilt and remorse, expressed in beautifully crafted but heartfelt prayers, over what he believed to be his culpable slothfulness.
He lived with the "black dog" of unremitting depression and melancholy, and the fear of insanity.
An even greater fear, however, was that of being "sent to hell ... and punished everlastingly".Celebration
So why are we celebrating the 300th anniversary of his birth this year?
First, because of his literary legacy. He left, inter alia
, a play, poems, stories, travel accounts (his own and others'), an edition of Shakespeare, literary biographies and hundreds of essays.
His greatest achievement was The Dictionary of the English Language
, for which he was known by the sobriquet Dictionary Johnson.
It took him nearly 10 years, and he wrote it single-handed, using amanuenses but not, of course, so much as a typewriter, let alone a word-processor.
For every person who revels in his writings, there must be a hundred like me who have only randomly sampled the Johnsonian corpus, but have devoured his biography by his friend Boswell a number of times, along with other accounts of his life which have come out since.
No-one has been able to capture Johnson (1709-1784) with the genius of the young and occasionally absurd Scottish lawyer; but the value of later biographies, such as this one by Peter Martin, is that they supplement the account by Boswell (who met him when Johnson was already 54, and spent a calculated total of 276 days with him) with contemporary descriptions of him from other sources, such as Mrs Thrale, Fanny Burney and Sir John Hawkins.
Martin has done a thorough and readable job, marred only by the occasional jarring infelicity such as "precipitously" for "precipitately"; the anachronistic "screeching halt"; and, mirabile dictu
(we are talking here about a teacher of English literature!), the unforgivable "mitigated against" for "militated against".
So why would anyone want to read anything written about Johnson the man, whether by Boswell, Martin, or anyone in between?
For a start, he was a "clubbable" man who loved company and good conversation, but his humanity did not stop with his distinguished friends such as Joshua Reynolds and Edmund Burke.
His house gave shelter to a succession of lame ducks, such as the blind and querulous Mrs Williams, and the lugubrious doctor to the poor, Robert Levet.
He once carried home on his back a disease-ridden prostitute who had collapsed in the street.
Despite his Tory allegiance to the throne and the established church, he was no mindless reactionary.
He despised the cult of the Noble Savage ("don't cant in defence of savages"), but abominated Europeans' imperialistic exploitation of newly discovered peoples, particularly when it took the form of slavery.
Boswell records his gleeful toast: "Here's to the next insurrection of the Negroes in the West Indies"; and his dismissal of Americans with: "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?"
Unlike those who love humanity but can't stand people, Johnson treated his own black servant, Frank, with the greatest consideration and sensitivity.
His religious sympathies extended beyond the Anglican communion to Roman Catholics and Methodists.
At the end, his lifelong horror of death was allayed not by any official sacramental or clerical intervention; but, according to Boswell (whose informant was Johnson's friend and physician Dr Brocklesby), "all his fears were calmed and absorbed by the prevalence of his faith, and his trust in the merits and propitiation of JESUS CHRIST. He talked often to me about the necessity of faith in the sacrifice of Jesus, as necessary beyond all good works whatever, for the salvation of mankind".
Carlyle described Johnson as a literary hero, and he was.
As Boswell put it (in words which Martin calls "vividly terrifying"): "His mind resembled the vast amphitheatre, the Coliseum in Rome. In the centre stood his judgement, which like a mighty gladiator, combated those apprehensions that, like the wild beasts of the arena, were all around in cells, ready to be let out upon him. After a conflict he drives them back into their dens; but not killing them, they were still assailing him."
His defiance of all the misfortunes and disadvantages that life threw at him is perhaps best summed up in another passage from Boswell: "He ... burst into such a fit of laughter, that he appeared to be almost in a convulsion; and, in order to support himself, laid hold of one of the posts at the side of the foot pavement, and sent forth peals so loud, that in the silence of the night his voice seemed to resound from Temple-bar to Fleet-ditch."