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The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791)

par James Boswell

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Boswell's biography of his friend and hero Samuel Johnson is an acknowledged classic, full of humorous anecdote and rich characterisation. Johnson's complex humanity (his depression, fear of death, intellectual brilliance and rough humour) is set within a vivid picture of eighteenth-century London, peopled by personalities of the time such as Sir Joshua Reynolds, John Wilkes, Oliver Goldsmith and David Garrick.… (plus d'informations)
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Long, entertaining and anecdotal. ( )
  sfj2 | Apr 3, 2024 |
Fascinating, for several reasons: that Johnson is an extraordinary character, that London in the 1760s was an exciting place, that Boswell’s anecdotal voice is pleasurable to read - not least because of the cross-currents of ideas (current today) that were being tested as they flowed through and around what is quite an intimate relationship between the two men.

On the one hand, Boswell, when invited to dinner at Johnson’s house had low expectations:
I supposed we scarcely have knives and forks…but the fact was we had very good soup, a boiled leg of lamb and spinach, a veal pie. and a rice pudding. (p.164)
and on the other the pervasive influences of Rousseau (dismissed by Johnson as nonsense)
…the happiness of a savage life;…’Here I am free and unrestrained, amidst the rude magnificence of Nature, with this Indian woman by my side, and this gun with which I can procure food when I want it: what more can be desired for human happiness?’…Johnson. …gross absurdity. It is sad stuff; it is brutish…(p.166)
Johnson has a tendency to make assertions with little foundation or evidence other than the weight of a turn of phrase or contrarian obstinance.
…he loved to display his ingenuity in argument; and therefore would sometimes in conversation maintain opinions which he was sensible were wrong, but in supporting which, his reasoning and wit would be most conspicuous. (p. 209)
I found myself noting many passages. One I thought applied to me and I'll note is here for reference
'Sir, a man may be so much of every thing, that he is nothing of any thing'. (p.288)


Perhaps it’s that the anecdotes include so many notable encounters amidst the daily routines of eating and visiting that this ‘Life’ can't help but be consumed, not just as an intellectual journey but where tangible remnants in the physical world prompt other depths: I've been fortunate to have visited Dr Johnson's house in London at 17 Gough Square, my sister once gave me a William Hogarth illustration from [b:The Analysis of Beauty|23672505|The Analysis of Beauty (Dover Books of Fine Art)|William Hogarth|https://i.gr-assets.com/images/S/compressed.photo.goodreads.com/books/1429097330l/23672505._SY75_.jpg|916332], and from my maternal grandfather, I have a complete 1805 set of The Plays of William Shakespeare which includes Dr Johnson's Preface.

I'll now exhume my memories of Gough Square, explore Hogarth's The Analysis of Beauty, and read Dr Johnson's Preface to Shakespeare. The danger is that I'll become obsessed with 18th Century London. ( )
  simonpockley | Feb 25, 2024 |
At the end of his Life of Johnson, James Boswell admits to many of his subject's faults: Johnson's irascibility, his prejudices, his narrow-mindedness in religion and politics. Johnson was a conservative with a capital C, and he is outright dismissive of many of the important philosophical ideas of his time (there is little consideration of Locke, Hume or Smith, much less Kant).

Instead, Johnson is known has the foremost literary figure of 18th Century London. He was not a man of ideas; rather, he was a man of language, and his greatest achievement was to codify that language in his Dictionary. Again, this project was an essentially conservative endeavor, an attempt to protect and elevate the language so that the uneducated masses could be kept in their linguistic place.

The Romantics that followed represented a rebellion against this staid, elitist, infighting group of literati that includes Addison, Steele, Pope and Johnson. Instead of engaging in a game of wits against their intellectual rivals, the Romantics sought to expand the possibilities of language by infusing it with a more natural, vernacular, personal and passionate approach. The writers of the Age of Johnson were essentially backwards looking, translating and retranslating the Greeks and Romans, writing criticism on Shakespeare. The Romantics were visionary and progressive. johnson would have probably scoffed at the likes of a Keats or a Blake as being too radical and impolite in their poetic visions.

Boswell's life of Johnson is confusing in that, while it is a warts and all depiction of the good doctor, the reader is a left with a sense that Boswell looks at his subject through the rose-colored lenses of a literary acolyte. What are we meant to think of this complicated man? ( )
  jonbrammer | Jul 1, 2023 |
Greatest biography written bar none. Captures the nature of the man better than anything since. I wouldn't call it the best model for writing a biography, but it still is the finest one ever written. Never surpassed. ( )
  Gumbywan | Jun 24, 2022 |
The stages of reading Boswell's Johnson thus far:
1) Believing Johnson was a genius.
2) Knowing Johnson was an idiot.
3) Shipping Johnson and Boswell.

The moment Boswell meets Johnson is electric.

I'm having so much fun with this one, Johnson is quite often extremely relatable: "I always feel an inclination to do nothing" (p. 268). Going to take a nice break before tackling volume 2. ( )
  jakebornheimer | May 12, 2021 |
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Nom de l'auteurRôleType d'auteurŒuvre ?Statut
Boswell, Jamesauteur principaltoutes les éditionsconfirmé
Abbott, Herbert VaughanDirecteur de publicationauteur secondairequelques éditionsconfirmé
Adler. Mortimer J.Directeur de publicationauteur secondairequelques éditionsconfirmé
Chadsey, C. P.Directeur de publicationauteur secondairequelques éditionsconfirmé
Evans, BergenIntroductionauteur secondairequelques éditionsconfirmé
Herzberg, Max J.Directeur de publicationauteur secondairequelques éditionsconfirmé
Hill, George Birkbeck Normanauteur secondairequelques éditionsconfirmé
Rawson, ClaudeIntroductionauteur secondairequelques éditionsconfirmé
Rosebery, Earl ofIntroductionauteur secondairequelques éditionsconfirmé
Ross, GordonIllustrateurauteur secondairequelques éditionsconfirmé
Shewan, RodneyDirecteur de publicationauteur secondairequelques éditionsconfirmé
Tinker, Chauncey BrewsterDirecteur de publicationauteur secondairequelques éditionsconfirmé
Womersley, DavidDirecteur de publicationauteur secondairequelques éditionsconfirmé

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To write the Life of him who excelled all mankind in writing the lives of others, and who, whether we consider his extraordinary endowments, or his various works, has been equalled by few in any age, is an arduous, and may be reckoned in me a presumptuous task.
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After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley's ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it -- "I refute it THUS."
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Boswell's biography of his friend and hero Samuel Johnson is an acknowledged classic, full of humorous anecdote and rich characterisation. Johnson's complex humanity (his depression, fear of death, intellectual brilliance and rough humour) is set within a vivid picture of eighteenth-century London, peopled by personalities of the time such as Sir Joshua Reynolds, John Wilkes, Oliver Goldsmith and David Garrick.

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Bibliothèque patrimoniale: James Boswell

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