Politics Magazine

Wain; Johnson

Posted on the 19 December 2012 by Erictheblue


I've been happily sunk, on my morning coffeebreaks, in John Wain's biography of Samuel Johnson.  My own outline of his life is here.  For those who know only Boswell's Johnson--and I'm not denigrating the merit of that most enjoyable book--the necessary corrective concerns the privation and unhappiness that marred his early years and dogged him all his life.  It's in Boswell, too, but tends to be overwhelmed by a million instances, in the sprawl of the last three-fourths of that book, of Johnson in conversation with friend and foe, always getting the last, winning word--not to mention the numerous panegyrics on his works and character.  Johnson had already been awarded his pension when Boswell met him and began compiling his notes and observations. 

"Why don't I like him?  Because he's better than me."  That question and answer explains a lot, but it cannot explain why so many--including Samuel Beckett!--have loved Dr Johnson.  He might have been better than me but he wasn't more fortunate.  You tend not to sympathize with people you admire, and it's the unlikely confluence of those emotions, I think, that makes me love reading about Dr Johnson.  When he wrote, in "The Vanity of Human Wishes"--

Enlarge my life with multitude of days!
In health, in sickness, thus the suppliant prays;
Hides from himself his state, and shuns to know
That life protracted is protracted woe.

--it wasn't coming only from his mind and prodigious reading.


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