SAMUEL JOHNSON: A Biography by John Wain
Kirkus Star


Email this review


John Wain is, in his own, slightly smaller way, as much a champion of literary conservativism as the magisterial Dr. Johnson. And as he notes in his introduction, he was born in the same district as Johnson, went to the same university and, as critic, poet and novelist in his own right, has also shared in the Grub Street life -- which, if not exactly qualifications for another biography of Johnson, then at least an explanation for its fervor. Sam Johnson is Wain's paragon of excellence and, in asides from the full and deliberate consideration of Johnson's personality and oeuvre, affords Wain a proper stage on which to decry the decline of values and defend the virtues of the literary life. On top of that, the distance of time has served Wain as it could not Boswell. In 20th century style, his biography defines the motivating psychology behind the public figure -- the imposing moralist, the rationalist, the lawgiver. At the source of Johnson's right-thinking ways is the pitiable humanity of his illness and legendary ugliness, the coolness of relations with his mother, the humiliating poverty and misfortune with patrons that truncated his university education and blighted his early London years, the waning of his ardor for alcoholic wife Tetty who was twenty years his senior and the flood of guilt he experienced at her death, the conflict of his robust (and perhaps exotic) sexual appetite with his morose Christianity. The wholeness of the biographer's conception is equal to Joshua Reynolds' four telling portraits of Sam Johnson revealing his intellect, passion, suffering and generosity. Moreover, Wain is an eloquent and astute critic whose enthusiasm is affecting and whose work is every bit the measure of the man.

Pub Date: Feb. 18th, 1974
Publisher: Viking