Biography Theory and Method: The Case of Samuel Johnson.(Critical Essay)

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In "Samuel Johnson: Dean of Contemporary Biographers" (Biography 24.2, Spring 2001), I argued that Samuel Johnson's description of biography in The Rambler, No. 60 is still far ahead of what biographers and many of their critics conceive of as biography. I stressed his enlightenment belief that biography provides access to universal truths, and that the genre is uniquely equipped to call upon the faculty of empathy--the ability not only to sympathize with other human beings but to put ourselves in their places. What continues to fascinate me as a biographer and as an assiduous reader of contemporary reviews is Johnson's certainty that biography is a first-rate form of writing that carries its own form of justification. Any life, he emphasizes, might be worth a biography--a position few of my contemporaries seem to embrace unless they are reading novels. But for Johnson, a life does not have to be full of dramatic incidents or crowned with achievements. Indeed, the search for novelty and distinction, he observ es, reflects "false measures of excellence and dignity" and an obsession with "vulgar greatness." The Life of Savage comes to mind in connection with the Rambler essay, but I also want to view Johnson's theory and practice in the context of my own work and of the contemporary response to biography.

To the contemporary biographer, the Life of Savage ought to be a marvel. At the outset, Johnson proceeds with a confidence in the value of his work that is bracing. That he is dealing with a minor poet matters not at all, for he is untroubled by notions of what a literary biography should be. All biography is one, he implies. Here is a writer who need not worry about Chief Inspector Malcolm's apprehension of biographical burglars, or Coroner Oates's inquests into pathography. On the contrary, he observes: "The heroes of literary as well as civil history have been very often no less remarkable for what they have suffered than for what they have achieved" (50).

I will not rehearse the familiar details of Savage's life, except to say that I regard Johnson's attack on the Countess of Macclesfield, Savage's alleged mother, with considerable envy. She was still alive when Johnson published his biography. No contemporary biographer, especially in England, would dare to write so frankly for fear of a libel suit. Undoubtedly, Johnson would be castigated by today's reviewers as too "judgmental" and cruel. He would have his Rambler riposte ready. He worried less about hurting peoples' feelings, and more about the respect "to be paid to knowledge, to virtue, and to truth."

Johnson understood Savage's faults and did not minimize them, although he invented a language for his hero's transgressions that maintains his empathy for his subject while showing the reader why others might feel otherwise. Thus Johnson strikes a regretful tone: "it must be confessed that Mr Savage's esteem was no very certain possession, and that he would lampoon at one time those whom he had praised at another" (74). Similarly, of Savage's brief, atrocious career as an actor, Johnson deems the theater "a province for which nature seemed not to have designed him" (62). Savage's fitful personality, his winning and losing ways, are embedded in Johnson's perfectly balanced sentences: "It was his peculiar happiness, that he scarcely ever found a stranger, which he did not leave a friend; but it must likewise be added, that he had not often a friend long, without obliging him to become a stranger" (81). The seesaw of Savage's life is preserved in these stately sentences, which give the biography a decorum and d ignity that its subject seldom sustained. Nearly always a trial to himself and to everyone else, Savage nevertheless succeeds as the subject of a biography because Johnson shows just how much energy Savage invested in his complaints. Not much of Savage's poetry is quoted, but as Johnson signals at the beginning of the biography, it is the agony of the man, not the work of the poet, that deeply engages the biographer's imagination. …