Reliable, readable life of 18th-century England’s most celebrated intellectual, lexicographer, poet, critic, biographer, essayist, Tory, travel writer and—perhaps most of all—Personality.
Few writers can approach Johnson (1709–84) more surely than Martin, biographer of the Great Man’s own famous biographer (A Life of James Boswell, 2000, etc.). He does so in conventional fashion, beginning with a sketch of Johnson’s hometown, Lichfield, and ending with the funeral and burial, discussing intervening events more or less chronologically. There are few surprises. Martin does argue that Johnson was, perhaps, not so adamantine a Tory as others have portrayed him, more than once declaring that it’s unproductive and inaccurate to view Whig v. Tory as a simplistic struggle merely mirroring today’s Right v. Left. Yet he acknowledges that Johnson strongly opposed U.S. independence (famously dismissing the principal American champions of freedom as “drivers of Negroes”), accepted a pension from George III and enjoyed the honorary Oxford doctorate arranged by a grateful government when he published a pamphlet attacking the American rebels’ position on taxation. Politics aside, Martin ably shows us the enormous depths of Johnson’s humanity. He was hideously scarred by scrofula, nearly blind, subject to violent twitching that suggests Tourette’s, big and clumsy and taurine, often unkempt and always impecunious. Yet Johnson nonetheless married (with uneven result), had devoted friends (to whom he was fiercely devoted), opened his home to those in need, enjoyed the company of the famous (Joshua Reynolds, hometown buddy David Garrick) but also the unknown. He battled melancholy continually, railed against his own sometimes dilatory ways, yet when ready to work was immensely productive in a very short time, his pen flashing across the page, his mind remembering the vast libraries he’d read, his imagination soaring where few had ever gone, or ever will go, not least of all in the astonishing Dictionary.
From the ordinary clay of words, Martin sculpts an impressive image of an extraordinary man.