SAMUEL JOHNSON by W. Jackson Bate
Kirkus Star


A Biography
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Why, some will ask, another biography of that print-drenched Englishman, especially so soon after John Wain's acclaimed contribution? Quite simply, because this one is by Harvard's W. Jackson Bate, Pulitzer Prize-winner (John Keats) and a scholar who believes, with Johnson, that biographies should be not just entertainments or theses but reassuring lessons in the hard job of living. While Wain's cool, sharp study connected Johnson's moral voice to 20th-century depravity, Bate gravely and warmly embraces Johnson's life-and-writings as an inspiring, personal touchstone for all times: "Whatever we experience, we find Johnson has been there before us, and is meeting and returning home with us." There is little that's new--there's been little new since Boswell, Thrale, and Hawkins--in the facts Bate presents: the awkward, half-blind, half-deaf, tic-ridden, pockmarked body; the decades of hack writing, poverty, and camaraderie; the prodigious feats of self-education, speed-writing, the Dictionary; the tender attachments to an elderly bride, the gifted (Garrick, Goldsmith, Reynolds), and the wayward. But, using a homely blend of psychoanalysis, scholarship, and sheer empathy, Bate draws from the life its universal quandaries: the fight against sloth, the impossible pressures of self-demand, the fear of insanity, the pursuit and distrust of religion, the quest for self-management. Johnson's breakdowns--in his twenties and at mid-life--resound with implicit, contemporary echoes. And, in the works, Bate finds Johnson's intuitive understanding--in himself and others--of the terrain later charted by Freud: the "stratagems of self-defence"; the nature of wishing, boredom, envy; the admission that the mind is not a serene, rational instrument. Even Bate's most professorial critiques (counting verbs, diagramming the Johnsonian sentence) are linked, gracefully, to the real--"the real issues are still not dead." At one point, Bate reminds us that Johnson's formal, idea-laden poem, "The Vanity of Human Wishes," was known to have drawn 18th-century tears from the sort of readers immune to sentimental assaults. This compassionate, dead-center biography, quietly gathering hope for us all as it follows its handicapped "heroic pilgrim. . . through this strange adventure of life," should have a similar impact on readers in our own time and in times to come.
Pub Date: Oct. 25th, 1977
ISBN: 1582435243
Page count: 370pp
Publisher: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1st, 1977