Thanks to Boswell’s monumental biography of Samuel Johnson, we remember Dr. Johnson today as a great wit and conversationalist, the rationalist epitome and the sage of the Enlightenment. He is more often quoted than read, his name invoked in party conversation on such diverse topics as marriage, sleep, deceit, mental concentration, and patriotism, to generally humorous effect. But in Johnson’s own day, he was best known as an essayist, critic, and lexicographer: a gifted writer possessed of great force of mind and wisdom. Writing a century after Johnson, Ruskin wrote of Johnson’s essays: He “taught me to measure life, and distrust fortune…he saved me forever from false thoughts and futile speculations.” Peter Martin here presents “the heart of Johnson,” a selection of some of Johnson’s best moral and critical essays. At the center of this collection are the periodical essays from the Rambler, Adventurer, and Idler. Also included are Johnson’s great moral fable, Rasselas; the Prefaces to the Dictionary and his edition of Shakespeare; and selections from Lives of the Poets. Together, these works—allied in their literary, social, and moral concerns—are the ones that continue to speak urgently to readers today.
Readers should find much pleasure and insight in this collection.
We see in [Johnson's] essays the tiny brushwork of brilliant self-portraiture; we hear the rhythm of moral seriousness, the sound of contemplation as it engages with the questions of how to live and how to manage in the face of death. But most of all we feel the reach of an author--a writer attempting to reach past self-doubt, poverty, cant, and orthodoxy, in order to assert the power of individual authorship and free thinking in the face of more nebulous authorities. Samuel Johnson may have failed often enough to be personable, but he nevertheless freed subjectivity...and brought both dignity and self-sufficiency to the writing game, allowing authors to be who they chose to be, unshackled from patronage and the requirement to please great men. We see it in his essays and we see it again in his Lives of the Poets: a writer's writer, beckoning individual creative power out of the mire of dependency, making the work answerable only to high standards of excellence stringently applied.
This handsome book, with its fine printing and striking cover, commemorates the 2009 tercentennial of Johnson's birth by introducing uninitiated readers to the most accessible of his writing, Martin satisfies this aim well, producing a title that serves as a companion to his Samuel Johnson: A Biography.
Peter Martin, who joined the crowded ranks of Johnson's biographers last year, has given us a fair representation of [his] works here...Harvard Press deserves lavish praise for producing a handsome, well-made edition.
- 536 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Belknap Press
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