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DR. JOHNSON AND MR. SAVAGE by Richard Holmes

DR. JOHNSON AND MR. SAVAGE

By Richard Holmes

Pub Date: Aug. 29th, 1994
ISBN: 0-679-43585-9
Publisher: Pantheon

 Holmes (Footsteps, 1985) once again brings his humane intelligence and imagination to bear in an exemplary and delightful piece of biographical detection. Working with what he admits are scarce documentary resources, Holmes unravels an enigma that has troubled admirers of Dr. Samuel Johnson from James Boswell forward--i.e., the moralist's two-year friendship with the notorious poet Richard Savage after Johnson's arrival in London in 1737 as a young man. Johnson became his friend's biographer and apologist after Savage's death in debtor's prison--the sorry end to a colorful, if reprobate, life. Savage titillated le tout London in the 1720s by claiming to be the illegitimate son of a countess and an earl; condemned to hang for murder after a coffee-house brawl, he obtained a royal pardon; and he was lionized and then vilified by London society. He was charming and violent, ingratiating and ungrateful, a poet and an extortionist. What drew the scholarly young Johnson to such a man? Closely reading Johnson's Life of Savage, Holmes learns as much about the biographer as about his subject, uncovering a surprising and moving portrait of Johnson as lonely literary aspirant and political radical, a man of intense, if tragically unsatisfied, erotic passion. As a down-and-out newcomer to an unwelcoming London, he roamed the city's streets at night with Savage, who was then shabby but proud and who railed against the society that had rejected him. To Johnson, he represented the poet as outcast--and in this image Holmes locates some unexpected seeds of Romanticism, as well as the model for Thales in Johnson's work London. While recognizing Savage's faults, Johnson remained faithful to his friend. Holmes concludes that for Johnson ``the moral meaning of Savage's existence...lay in the capacity of even a flawed man to struggle nobly against the misfortunes of life.'' A brilliant excursion in the company of three fascinating men- -Samuel Johnson, Richard Savage, and Richard Holmes.