Samuel Johnson: The Life of an Author

Samuel Johnson: The Life of an Author

Samuel Johnson: The Life of an Author

Samuel Johnson: The Life of an Author

Excerpt

An Author?'tis a Venerable Name!
How few deserve it, and what numbers claim?

THIS IS A BOOK about the life of an author—not the life of a man but the life that he put in his work, a life to be found not by going outside his writings but by going more deeply inside them. It begins with his first compositions, not with his birth, and ends not with his death but with the close—and afterlife—of his career. In this respect it is the opposite of most recent biographies of authors, which comb through the private life of the person but often fail to satisfy the kind of reader who cares about authors because of what they have written. By contrast, this book passes over details that do not shed light on the work. It assumes that the crucial part of an author's life is what has gone into his writing, and it tries to bring out the powers of mind and feeling that keep that writing alive.

Any author might be the subject of such a book. Perhaps no author offers more of a challenge, however, than Samuel Johnson. For most of the last two centuries, Johnson's personality—or what Bertrand Bronson more accurately called his "folk-image" —has tended to be far better known than his writings. This image was born in his own time, when he became not only a famous writer but a celebrity to a public that hungered for stories about him. Immediately after his death, a series of biographies, capped by Boswell's pivotal Life of Johnson (1791), ensured that curiosity would never die. The image even has its own name, Dr. Johnson (a title he seldom if ever used). Nor has the fascination faded. One good anthol-

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