Kirkus Reviews QR Code
SAMUEL JOHNSON by David Nokes

SAMUEL JOHNSON

A Life

By David Nokes

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-8050-8651-5
Publisher: John Macrae/Henry Holt

A swift life of the author of A Dictionary of the English Language (1755), whose corporal and hygienic eccentricities matched in uniqueness the brilliance of his mind.

Nokes (English Literature and Creative Writing/King’s College, London; Jane Austen, 1997, etc.) does not add much to the biographical detail of Johnson’s remarkable life (1709–1784), but he emphasizes that Johnson’s most celebrated biographer, James Boswell, was often more interested in portraying his own proximity to his subject than the subject himself. Nokes notes that Boswell spent fewer than 500 days in Johnson’s presence in a two-decade period, and manifestly did not, as some think, cling like a remora to the flank of the shark. The author also depicts a sometimes dilatory Johnson, who often found myriad reasons not to begin or continue with a commission. A notable example was The Lives of the Poets, which was supposed to be a series of brief prefaces to a multivolume anthology of English poets. Johnson, however, devoted some scattered years to the project, whose modest dimensions soon ballooned. Nokes spends little time summarizing or assessing the quality or enduring significance of Johnson’s work, but he does attend well to chronology, quoting liberally and effectively from Johnson’s correspondence and personal records. The author examines Johnson’s boyhood, his complex medical and psychological profile, his marriage to an older woman, his struggles to become a writer, his long loving relationship with Hester Thrale and his affection for young novelist Fanny Burney, whose 1778 novel Evelina he praised. Curiously, Nokes often neglects to provide a year for certain events, requiring inquisitive readers to page backward to do uncertain calculations.

Rigorous and scholarly, but an introduction rather than an advancement in knowledge.