Title: The Life of Samuel Johnson
Author: James Boswell
James Boswell’s biography The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791). Considers by many scholars to be one of the finest pieces of biographical writing in the English language. Boswell was acquainted with Samuel Johnson during his life. But did not publish the work until seven years after Johnson’s death. Later research has shown that Boswell took liberties with some of Johnson’s quotations and censored important incidents from his biography. However, the level of detail included in the work. All that makes it a valuable resource on Samuel Johnson and the eighteenth century.
Samuel Johnson’s early life
Samuel Johnson is born in 1709 in a room above his father’s bookshop. His mother, Sarah, is 40 years old when Johnson is born, and due to the lateness of the pregnancy, she is attended by a respected surgeon. Johnson is sickly at birth and it is feared that he will not live, so a vicar is brought in to perform a baptism. However, Johnson’s health improves soon after.
When Johnson is three years old, he begins to show signs of exceptional intelligence. Much to his embarrassment and irritation, his parents frequently ask him to perform stunts of memory to show off to friends. Johnson excels in school and begins to write poems and verses when he is sixteen. However, his academic future remains in doubt because his father is deeply in debt. When his mother’s cousin dies in 1728, she leaves Johnson enough money to attend university.
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Far ahead of many students in his studies at Oxford, Johnson is idle much of the time because they work is too easy for him. After a year at university, he runs out of money and is force to return home without a degree.
Back home with his parents, Johnson goes through a period of physical and mental anguish. He tries to become a school teacher but gets rebecause he does not have a degree. When he is finally accepted as a teacher, he is soon forced to leave the school after an argument with the headmaster. With the help of his friend Thomas Warren, a book publisher, Johnson begins producing translated and annotated books.
After Warren’s death, Johnson marries his widow, Elizabeth. Johnson’s family opposes the union, and one of Elizabeth’s children from her first marriage cuts all ties with the couple. Johnson continues to support his new family with his translation work, as well as tutoring the children of local prominent families. In 1735, Johnson opens a private school that fails soon after, taking with it a significant portion of Elizabeth’s fortune. However, one of Johnson’s students, David Garrick, travels to London to become an actor. He invites Johnson to join him there and helps him secure work writing for The Gentlemen’s Magazine.
Johnson also finishes his first play, the historical tragedy, Irene. His fame grows quickly as he releases more popular works, including the novel Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia and the ten-volume critical work Prefaces, Biographical and Critical, to the Works of the English Poets. He also writes a well-received introduction to the works of William Shakespeare.
During this period, Johnson’s reputation as a brilliant writer grows quickly, and he makes the acquaintance of many of the famous intellectuals of the time, including David Hume, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and Oliver Goldsmith. He also earns the reputation of an eccentric, due to the tics that are probably symptoms of Tourette’s disease.
Boswell explains his intention to depict Johnson’s complete life, and so does not shy away from writing about his illness as well as some of the more ludicrous aspects of his personality. He says he did not set out to write only praise about Johnson, but to show the entirety of his life, the good and the bad.
Boswell meets Johnson in 1763, but they are destine to have only a short acquaintance. In 1773, Johnson’s health takes a turn for the worse. He suffers a stroke and loses his ability to speak, though he is still able to write about his fear of death. Many people came to visit Johnson on his deathbed, including Boswell, who waited in the house until Johnson died on December 13, 1784.