Cover: Samuel Johnson: A Biography, from Harvard University PressCover: Samuel Johnson in PAPERBACK

Samuel Johnson

A Biography

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Product Details


$30.00 • £24.95 • €27.00

ISBN 9780674057371

Publication Date: 11/15/2010


640 pages

6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches

34 halftones, 2 maps

Belknap Press

North America only

Modern biographers are aware of the competition. They have to write a first-rate book about Johnson or hear from critics that they’ve foolishly entered the wrong league. And a number of scholars, notably Paul Fussell and W. Jackson Bate, have given us remarkable portraits. They’re now joined by Peter Martin, whose Samuel Johnson: A Biography is a model of its kind: a deeply felt, beautifully written account of a personality about whom we cannot know enough.—George Sim Johnston, The Wall Street Journal

A lively new biography, a book well seasoned with good stories, most of which do not seek always to show the Doctor in a better light… Martin is sympathetic to Johnson and equally sympathetic to the truth about him. He has hitherto written excellent biographies of both Boswell and Edmond Malone—two of the Doctor’s brightest satellites—and he turns to Johnson with a strong and nuanced sense of how he was, as much as anything, the figment of a great many busy pens, not least his own.—Andrew O’Hagan, The New York Review of Books

Martin brings alive with novelistic detail such famous scenes as Johnson’s youthful ride to London to be touched by Queen Anne for ‘the king’s evil’—scrofula, which was believed to be curable by a touch from royalty; his public rejection of the Earl of Chesterfield’s 11th-hour patronage of his dictionary; and the actor David Garrick’s keyhole spying on (and later parody of) Johnson’s amorous pursuit of Mrs. Johnson. For a man who bragged and twitched and stank, Johnson had a lot of friends, and Martin superintends them like a film director: poet Charlotte Lennox, painter Joshua Reynolds, novelist Fanny Burney and, of course, future laird and biographer James Boswell.—Michael Sims, The Washington Post Book World

Martin has spent a lifetime steeped in Johnson’s world, having written definitive biographies of Boswell and of Edmond Malone, the Irish Shakespearean scholar without whose help the unstable Boswell might never have finished his massive biography… As a character, Johnson turns out to be not only funny and wildly eccentric—as we always knew he was—but deeply poignant. I was moved to tears by Martin’s biography.—Brooke Allen, The Wilson Quarterly

[An] outstanding new biography.—Christopher Hitchens, The Atlantic

A fetching new version of the life of Samuel Johnson.—Julia Keller, The Chicago Tribune

The story is well told, quotations from Boswell and Johnson are frequent and judicious, the anecdotes (familiar to some) are enlivening, and a picture of the fierce, complicated, manically eccentric genius emerges that will provoke admiration and wonder.—Rex Murphy, The Globe and Mail

[Samuel Johnson] will give readers a good sense of this extraordinary individual. For those who already know a fair bit about the subject, Martin will fill out the picture more amply.—Pat Rogers, New Criterion

Martin offers a convincing psychological study.—Leah Price, The New York Times Book Review

[Martin] writes with an eloquent propinquity, a delightful sense of companionship, about a figure otherwise clouded in antiquity. Martin is strikingly good…on Johnson’s literary achievement. He shows why the man is still so influential and—important this—still read.—Michael Coren, The Ottawa Citizen

Meticulously researched and well written.—James Srodes, The Washington Times

As author also of A Life of James Boswell, Martin knows the territory and obviously enjoys it… The tercentenary of the birth of so large a figure is more than enough reason for new perspectives, and Martin’s work is worthwhile.—G. Shivel, Choice

Few writers can approach Johnson (1709–84) more surely than Martin, biographer of the Great Man’s own famous biographer (A Life of James Boswell)… From the ordinary clay of words, Martin sculpts an impressive image of an extraordinary man.Kirkus Reviews

Martin’s book emphasizes aspects of Johnson not covered by any previously published biographies—including excellent ones by W. Jackson Bate, James L. Clifford, John Wain, and, of course, James Boswell—notably Johnson’s deep depressions; his liberal views on women writers, slavery, and poverty (he was not the complete Tory that others have painted him); and Johnson as a writer whose works deserve to be better known by the general public… Written in an engaging manner and featuring many quotations from Johnson and his friends and acquaintances, this new portrait of a complex, multifaceted writer and thinker is highly recommended.—Morris Hounion, Library Journal

Samuel Johnson (1709–1784) remains one of the most-quoted and carefully observed authors who ever lived. On the occasion of Johnson’s tercentenary, Martin searches out the psychological elements covered up by Boswell and others: the immense insecurities, bouts of deep depression, corrosive self-doubt and, in his last days, despair for his very soul… Martin admirably succeeds in giving a new generation Dr. Johnson, warts and all, from the inside.Publishers Weekly

Peter Martin’s biography of Samuel Johnson is a profoundly poignant and eloquent account of the Western world’s greatest literary critic. It is superior even to Martin’s valuable biography of Boswell.—Harold Bloom

As Johnson’s three hundredth birthday approaches, the time is ripe for a new biography that takes into account all we have learned about Johnson in this century and the later years of the last. Martin knows and tells. The result is a highly readable, deeply informed book that should find a broad and appreciative audience.—Robert Folkenflik, University of California, Irvine

Building on his previous work on James Boswell, Samuel Johnson’s most celebrated biographer, Peter Martin has written a humane, coherent and accessible life of the great eighteenth-century polymath, deftly and sympathetically exploring his personal relationships and psyche while also locating him in the literary culture of his age.—Henry Hitchings, author of Dr Johnson’s Dictionary: The Extraordinary Story of the Book that Defined the World

Awards & Accolades

  • Runner-up, The Atlantic Books of the Year, 2009
  • A Kansas City Star Top 10 Notable Book of 2008
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