A balanced view of the troubled yet triumphant life of one of literature’s and lexicography’s not-so-gentle giants.
Veteran biographer Meyers (Modigliani, 2006, etc.) sees Dr. Johnson (1709–84) not just as a powerful, pivotal writer but as a towering, overwhelming personality who dominated not just his associates but an entire era of British literary history. It didn’t seem to matter that he was ugly as can be. Born to a bookseller in Lichfield, Johnson suffered early from scrofula that left him facially scarred, as well as partially blind and deaf. A big man for his time, nearly six feet tall, he intimidated with his lancet wit and his looming physical presence. Meyers tells Johnson’s story in a gentle chronology, pausing to expatiate upon the rowdy, nonintellectual life at Oxford (where Johnson studied for a while), the nastiness of daily existence in 18th-century London and the contemporary literary scene. The author rarely hesitates to highlight the unpleasant facets of Johnson’s character: his temper, moodiness, peremptoriness, xenophobia, cruelty and careless hygiene. (The writer was grungy even by the standards of his smudgy era.) But he also emphasizes Johnson’s compassion, his opposition to slavery, his ferocious work ethic and his unrivaled intelligence. Meyers looks attentively but not too closely at Johnson’s publications, including his celebrated Dictionary of the English Language (1775), providing enough material to give readers a substantial taste but never to satiate. He is frank about his subject’s failures as a biographer, evident in the Lives of the Poets series, chiding Johnson for biases and insouciance about facts. Meyers chronicles with piercing poignancy the writer’s broken friendship with Hester Thrale and the losses of friends and health. Not as scholarly or as Dictionary-focused as Henry Hitchings’s Defining the World (2005), this capable portrait measures up nicely against Peter Martin’s equally solid Samuel Johnson (2008).
Lacks its subject’s wit and fire, but displays Johnson in all his grime and glory.