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Samuel Johnson: a biography by Peter Martin

Samuel Johnson: a biography (2008)

by Peter Martin

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Interesting enough to get me to check out Johnson's own writing. Vivid -- and a nice corrective to Boswell. Particularly noteworthy is his sympathy towards Mrs. Thrale, especially noting how she was trying to keep things together and was nearly constantly pregnant.
  revliz | Dec 27, 2014 |
(I began to write this review five months ago; no need to say that trying to complete it now and to include particulars I had noticed by dog-earing interesting pages will be a difficult task.)

Johnson once said that ‘The French are a gross, ill-bred, untaught people’. Hence my hesitation—being French myself—to embark on reviewing this biography. Even untaught, I knew at least Samuel Johnson’s name—the reciprocal being probably untrue. (For the majority of my fellow citizens, his name sounds more like an American president’s or a Canadian sprinter’s.) I even own a facsimile copy of the first Folio edition of his Dictionary, which proves my good education. I feel therefore entitled to give here my opinion. He also said: ‘What I gained by being in France was, learning to be better satisfied with my own country’. Why, the same is true for me, Sir, when I go abroad, nay, to your country. Score: England 1-France 1.

I read this biography during my holidays in Corsica, having bought the book long in advance and having kept it preciously to be sipped in the shade of a maritime pine, to the sound of cicadas. Needless to say that it reads much quicker than Boswell’s Life of Johnson, the two volumes of which I rather painfully absorbed two years ago. Peter Martin’s biography is lively, extremely lively, even if I was sometimes vexed by a couple of chapters I found too scholar.

Even when he was a boy, Johnson had an inclination for words and definitions. He says that ‘one day, when in anger she [his mother] called me a puppy, I asked her if she knew what they called a puppy’s mother.’ I had the curiosity to look up in the Dictionary how he defined puppy. But apart from progeny of a bitch and a name of contemptuous reproach to a man, he does not say much more. I wonder if writing this entry made him remember his genitor. Another story from his early life as a married man—about his quarrels with Tetty—is told by Mrs Thrale: ‘I asked him once whether he ever disputed with his wife (I knew he adored her). Oh yes, perpetually my dear says he; she was extremely neat in her disposition, and always fretful that I made the house so dirty—a clean floor is so comfortable she would say by way of twitting; till at last I told her, I thought we had had talk enough about the floor, we would now have a touch at the ceiling.’ Typically Johnsonian.

One whole chapter in the middle of the book is dedicated to the making of the Dictionary. This is something into which I was most interested in, although I personally find 18 pages are really too few on the subject. Johnson very roughly treated the books he used to spot quotations, as tools, not as precious items of collections. People were reluctant to lend them to him, except the ones who were fool enough to consider as a curiosity books defaced by heavy marks with black lead pencils. I felt that what Garrick composed on the Dictionary (‘And Johnson, well-arm’d like a hero of yore,/Has beat forty French, and will beat forty more’) is not readily understandable by an English audience. Should it be added that the ‘forty French’ are the forty members of the French Académie française who struggled for several decades to produce their Dictionnaire in the late 17th century? Among the many opinionated, facetious or malicious definitions, I noted this one, dedicated to our fellow LT member Foxhunter: foxhunter: ‘a man whose chief ambition is to show his bravery in hunting foxes’.

Frances Reynolds, the great portraitist’s wife, was another keen observer of Johnson’s habits. Once they had taken Johnson on a trip to Reynolds’s native Devonshire and had stopped near Dorchester to visit a castle, Johnson became bored by the owner’s explanations and ‘began to exhibit his antics, stretching out his legs alternately as far as he could possibly stretch; at the same time pressing his foot on the floor as heavily as he could possibly press, as if endeavouring to smooth the carpet, or rather perhaps to rumple it, and every now and then collecting all his force, apparently to affect a concussion of the floor’. ‘Dr Johnson, I believe the floor is very firm’, the guide remarked, which made him stop. In another place they visited, Johnson amazed his hostess by drinking seventeen cups of tea in one sitting. (She had counted them.) When he asked for one more, she cried out, ‘What! Another, Dr Johnson?’, to which he replied, ‘Madam, you are rude.’

I remember having contemplated a long time, in Peter Martin’s book, the reproduction of a painting by Zoffany entitled Mr & Mrs Garrick Taking Tea Upon the Lawn of Their Villa at Hampton, with a man who could be Johnson sitting on the left of the scene. The lawn is so well-kept, down to the river, and the tea table is so neatly dressed that I understand how ‘the leaving of such places makes a death-bed terrible’. ( )
1 vote Pepys | Dec 6, 2009 |
Martin has a great affection for Johnson, but I still believe the most enjoyable biography of Johnson (excepting, of course, Boswell, which really isn't a complete biography) is that of the British Poet John Wain. It's easily found in Abebooks, and will leave you believing that Johnson was a great a man as a writer. It also brings in the age he lives in, which Martin's doesn't. I even prefer Bate's biography, which tends to the dry side. Also, not to be peevish, but Martin focuses on Johnson's real or imagined sexual aspects far too much for my taste. I'd rather read the Rambler (highly recommended). ( )
  rjacobs17 | Oct 3, 2008 |
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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.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0674031601, Hardcover)

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.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:20:15 -0400)

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"Samuel Johnson is one of the great figures of English literature, perhaps the most quoted English writer after Shakespeare. This new biography, the first substantial one for thirty years, illuminates the Johnson that James Boswell, Johnson's famous biographer, never knew: the awkward and suffering youth, the unsuccessful schoolmaster, the eccentric marriage, his early years in London in the 1740s scratching a living, the epic struggle to produce the Dictionary. He was in many ways very much the outsider. These aspects of Johnson radically modify the conventional picture of him as the supremely confident dispenser of robust common sense. Peter Martin portrays a Johnson wracked by recriminations, self-doubt and depression - a man whose religious faith seems only to have deepened his fears."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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