Reviewed by Michael Sims
Sunday, December 21, 2008
By Peter Martin | Belknap/Harvard. 608 pp. $35
By Jeffrey Meyers | Basic. 528 pp. $35
With his tics-and-all biography of Samuel Johnson in 1791, James Boswell bequeathed us a portrait whose colors refuse to fade. There the old boy sits, as if in a Hogarth tavern scene, surrounded by a ruddy-cheeked posse roaring with laughter. Johnson achieved fame as a lexicographer, novelist, critic, essayist, poet, moralist and -- above all -- a witty talker. But Boswell's casting of his hero as half-Socrates and half- Falstaff inspires every generation to reassess the great man from what it invariably presumes to be its own, more sophisticated perspective. Hence, the almost simultaneous publication of two new biographies of Johnson on the 300th anniversary of his birth.
Jeffrey Meyers previously has examined the clay feet of numerous literary icons, from Edgar Allan Poe to Katherine Mansfield. Peter Martin wrote an acclaimed biography of Boswell and only then, fluent in the topic, turned to Johnson. Together, their books demonstrate that this self-torturing tangle of Rabelaisian appetites and Puritanical repression was smug, rude, short-tempered, always a procrastinator and frequently a careless scholar.
But they also remind us why the era of Edmund Burke and David Hume, of Oliver Goldsmith and Edward Gibbon, is called the Age of Johnson.
Born to a small-town bookseller in 1709 -- the year that Richard Steele launched a media revolution with the Tatler, the first popular British periodical -- Johnson lived through seven and a half decades in which the periodical press ignited revolution in the American colonies and, by the time of his death in 1784, was helping erode the ancien regime in France. Slowly he won acclaim for his wit and sharply worded opinions in the new media. At the height of the British Empire, he denounced the very notion of imperialism. A benefactor of the poor and a foe of slavery, he opposed the revolt of the American colonies. "How is it," he demanded, "that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?"
Nowadays Johnson's novel Rasselas and his drama "Irene" are seldom opened outside a classroom. But even people who haven't read any of his works know of his monumental 1755 Dictionary of the English Language. Its two gargantuan volumes not only encompassed the voice and history of a people; they also shepherded wandering linguistic traditions into a single parade with himself as grand marshal. Johnson's insubordinate diction enlivens every page. Ink is "the black liquor with which men write." Purist: "one superstitiously nice in the use of words." Lexicographer: "a harmless drudge." With this feat of showmanship, he turned himself into a forceful influence on other writers. He became that legendary sage and raconteur, Dr. Johnson.
But the famous Johnsonian wit amounted to more than barbs and epigrams. His balanced Latinate sentences stroll in like dandies whose sly tailoring hides a derringer; in argument he is a duelist, observing the ritual of openly choosing his weapons while never doubting that he will leave his opponent dying on the ground. Any topic could inspire a surprising analogy. "Were it not for imagination," he remarked, "a man would be as happy in the arms of a chambermaid as of a Duchess." While walking outdoors with Boswell, Johnson complained of Bishop Berkeley's "ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter," then kicked a stone on the path and declared, "I refute it thus."
Boswell's account of the later acts of Johnson's life is so famous that we may forget that Boswell himself didn't arrive on stage until late in the play. Both of the new biographies lead us through five busy decades before Boswell debuts. But their approaches differ. Martin spends more time fleshing out era and setting; Meyers devotes more energy to analyzing the style and sources of Johnson's writing. In Meyers, for example, Johnson's first 19 years earn barely a page a year. Martin gives the same period 70 pages and returns often to their influence. Meyers is interested in the writings and wants to get to them, while Martin finds the man -- and therefore his origins -- as interesting as the writer.
Tormented by a biblical array of afflictions, Johnson has been diagnosed lately as suffering from attention deficit disorder, a host of obsessions and compulsions, and even Tourette's syndrome. He was also a notorious slob in an era hardly prissy about hygiene. And, we now learn, this author of eloquent prayers may have been a closet sadomasochist. Meyers subtitles his book The Struggle and quotes Johnson's remark that "to strive with difficulties and to conquer them, is the highest human felicity." Amazingly prolific himself, Meyers seems to regard the primary struggle as that of overcoming obstacles in order to keep writing.
Johnson first gained widespread renown as a moral essayist in his own periodical, the Rambler. "The crucial difficulty," Meyers points out, "was that he retailed his bleak pessimism, based on bitter personal experience, as if it were the universal condition of mankind." As he often does, Meyers encapsulates an important Johnsonian trait in this seemingly offhand aperçu. Johnson anatomized the psyche of human beings as if he had personally dissected many specimens of this curious animal. Yet, in fact, he seldom bothered to closely examine another person's life. His biographies of poets such as Milton, elegant and insightful though they were, replaced what might have been nourishing information with Johnson's own bitter spice.
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.
Martin seems outraged, however, by indiscreet revelations about Johnson by his friend Hester Thrale. He quickly dismisses what he calls "the wild theory that Johnson was a flagellant demanding to be scourged and manacled." On the other hand, Meyers thoroughly surveys the reasons to believe that Mrs. Thrale, who called Johnson "my Slave," regularly manacled and whipped him. Occasionally Meyers's enthusiasm for this thesis outraces the evidence that he cites. But it is intriguing evidence, including many thinly veiled remarks in letters between Johnson and his much younger, married friend. Moreover, Boswell quotes Johnson as saying that when madmen "grow very ill, pleasure is too weak for them, and they seek pain," and Johnson once confided to his diary in protective Latin, "Insane thoughts on fetters and hand-cuffs."
If you know Johnson's work and want to see it in context, turn first to Meyers. If you want to peer inside a person and his era, you may prefer Martin. Both biographers emphasize the heroism in Johnson's determination to rise above poverty, ailing flesh and torturing obsessions. In doing so, they reveal the alloy of genius and paradox molding a man whose sheer force of personality has flourished from Grub Street to the Internet. ·
Michael Sims is the author of "Adam's Navel: A Natural and Cultural History of the Human Form." His most recent book, "Apollo's Fire," has just come out in paperback.