Kirkus Reviews QR Code
SAMUEL JOHNSON AND THE LIFE OF WRITING by Paul Fussell

SAMUEL JOHNSON AND THE LIFE OF WRITING

By Paul Fussell

Pub Date: March 10th, 1971
ISBN: 039330258X
Publisher: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich

Dr. Johnson was engaged, according to Dr. Fussell's entertaining monograph, in savagely honest exercises in this world's significations and the obligations attendant on the next. Pragmatic, empirical, regarding literature as a "quasi-legal argument" involving the absolute mastery of techniques, Johnson was wholly of his age, but contributed less of a lordly overview than an aggressive, corrosive determination to "locate reality." Fussell explores the major works -- the Rambler selections, Rasselas, the Dictionary, Lives of the English Poets -- and there are gallivanting analyses of such bizarre items as letters on behalf of a condemned man, prayers, and early Grubb Street work. There are representations of various forms in Johnson's unique and powerful style, where elegance is reckoned as a "function of benevolence." Johnson's apparent terror of death and his resultant determination to let no talent lodge in him useless, was according to Fussell, a constant goad to write (which he hated to do), although this may be an over-emphasis. Fussell's finest moments come in his explication of the Lives, a happy confident leap amid a montage of Johnson's contradictions, and he exits in a buccaneer baroque fashion: "Johnson's species (sic) in the Lives is the writer as representative man. . . obliged to adhere to genres. . . he has not devised; tormented by the hunger of imagination. . . : and finally carried away by the very stream of time which it has been his ironic ambition to shape, and by shaping to arrest." A fair and fine tribute to a dark and aggravating presence.