DICTIONARY JOHNSON: The Middle Years of Samuel Johnson by James L. Clifford

DICTIONARY JOHNSON: The Middle Years of Samuel Johnson

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KIRKUS REVIEW

After W. Jackson Bate's great, somberly moral-psychological Samuel Johnson (1977), the late Prof. Clifford's sequel to Young Sam Johnson (1955) comes as a total, and not altogether uncongenial, contrast. Clifford's is literary scholarship of the most old-fashioned sort--concentrating on the precise nature of Dr. Johnson's daily life, on the sorting out of names, the clearing up of details, the puzzling over just-exactly-what-happened. So, as Clifford covers the years from the Drury Lane premiere of Johnson's dull tragedy Irene (1749) to the arrival of Boswell on the scene (1763), he wonders ""what happened to the contents of his chamber pots?"" or ""What finally, then, caused him to change addresses?"" --and he assures us that ""The whole matter of Tetty's burial [why in Kent, not Westminster?] is one of the most difficult problems of Johnson's middle years."" Not that Clifford ignores the literary high points: the laborious composition of the Dictionary (a description of the page-by-page process); the speedy churning-out of the Rambler and Idler essays; Rasselas, its critical reception, and its relationship to the contemporaneous Candide. And he focuses briefly on Johnson's often-damaging yet inconsistent politics: ""The basic paradox in Johnson is that despite an innate love of freedom . . . he was at the same time convinced that some kind of subordination was necessary."" Still, calling on many scholars' recent research, Clifford really prefers to sketch in Johnson's cronies (""Who were all these unimportant people who drank tea with Johnson. . .?"") or untangle the details of some minor Johnson feuds. Not insensitive--there's compassion for SJ's poverty and angst--but mostly just chatty, academic footnotes to a life more richly described elsewhere.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1979
Publisher: McGraw-Hill