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James Boswell's Life Of Samuel Johnson

I recently read James Boswell's unabridged Life Of Samuel Johnson. I read the abridged version many years ago and enjoyed it, so I thought I would give the whole thing a shot.

Johnson did considerable work as a biographer, poet, and essayist, in addition to compiling one of the first dictionaries of the English Language. Still, it's debatable how much of his fame is due to his literary output and how much is due to Boswell's recording of his conversations and his life in general. Many of his most famous quotes come from this biography. "Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel" comes to mind.

I've always been fond of recounting the story of Johnson's "refutation" of Berkley's theory that matter only exists in human perceptions. He kicked a large stone wall and said "I refute it thus." There was a second anecdote I didn't know about (or perhaps had forgotten) until I'd read this unabridged biography. Johnson was with a group of men at a pub, and one of them was vigorously defending Berkley's theory.
As he left, Johnson said "Pray sir, don't leave us; for we may perhaps forget to think about you, and then you will cease to exist".

There are many accounts of Johnson hobnobbing with some of the most famous men of his day, including Oliver Goldsmith (whom he irritated by addressing him as "Goldy"),David Garrick, and Edmund Burke. There are many records of conversations between Johnson and the first two men. There are not as many as I would have liked with Edmund Burke. I already knew that Burke and Johnson agreed on many things politically, but disagreed very strongly on the American Revolution (which Johnson was adamantly, almost violently opposed to). More conversation about these matters would have been very interesting.But it's not Boswell's fault that there were not more, and even if there were, he couldn't really gauge how interesting they would be over 200 years into the future.

Perhaps the best quote in the book about Johnson comes from Oliver Goldsmith: "There is no arguing with Johnson; for when his pistol misses fire, he knocks you down with the butt end of it."  Boswell himself provides copious evidence of the truth of this remark.

The book is very anecdotal and episodic, but there are a couple of interesting continuing threads. The most amusing is his relationship with Boswell's wife. He often closed his letters to Boswell with "Make my compliments to Mrs. Boswell, though she does not love me". Johnson was in some ways unlovable, but it's possible he was unduly insecure here. Mrs.Boswell eventually sent him some marmalade she made, possibly (the book doesn't say) because she was tired of his complaints and wanted to prove him wrong. Johnson was quite happy about this turn of events, but still wasn't convinced of her esteem. In a subsequent letter to Boswell he wrote "Tell Mrs. Boswell that I shall taste her marmalade cautiously at first. .. when I find it does me no harm, I shall then receive it and be thankful for it, as a pledge of firm, and, I hope, of unalterable kindness. " But give him credit for some finesse-- he adds "She is, after all, a dear, dear lady".

There are many more tidbits I could share here, but I want to leave something for the reader. And Johnson's admonition to "strike it out" when I find "something particularly fine" is in mind as I write this. I'll just  leave the particularly fine things out from the start. (BTW, the saying originated from an old teacher of his, not Johnson himself.)

The Life Of Samuel Johnson is worth reading. You can find a free e-book of the abridged version here.