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Samuel Johnson: The Struggle by Jeffrey Meyers

28 April 2009

A few years ago, I received a copy of the unabridged Life of Samuel Johnson, and never actually managed to read more than a few dozen pages of it. (The unabridged version’s not the easiest size to carry around and read on a train, for one thing.) When I happened to come across this book in the local library, it prompted me to have another go at Boswell’s biographical magnum opus…which will be the subject of a book review itself, once I finish it.

Samuel Johnson: The Struggle by Jeffrey Meyers

When considering the life of 18th century English writer Samuel Johnson, it can be very difficult not to automatically associate his name with that of his most famous biographer, James Boswell. Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, published in 1791 (seven years after Johnson’s death), was innovative in its use of actual conversations between Boswell and Johnson, its incorporation of anecdotal evidence and commentary from others of Johnson’s acquaintance, and its animated, colloquial style that was a far cryfrom the traditionally reverent and respectful biography of the time. Yet Boswell was a careful editor, and even though his notes reveal that he himself was fascinated by the very intimate details of Johnson’s sexual appetites and deep emotional struggles, he suppressed many titillating details that for one reason or another he considered inappropriate to a public life of a well-known literary figure. Modern biographers of Samuel Johnson have sought to restore these details to present a more complete picture of their subject, and Jeffrey Meyers, one of the more recent Johnson biographers, has chosen to draw on older sources and newer scholarship to draft the life story of a long-suffering man, frequently ill and impoverished, prone both to frighteningly violent outbursts and to acts of surprising generosity, racked by fears for his own salvation and sanity, and successful more in spite of him failings than because of his powers. Indeed, Meyers’ approach to his subject is evident from his choice of a title alone: Samuel Johnson: The Struggle.

Meyers’ account of Johnson’s struggle focuses on both the physical and mental troubles that continually plagued Johnson’s life. Partially blind and deaf from his birth in 1709, a sickly child infected with scrofula (for which he was ‘touched’ by an elderly Queen Anne in the traditional attempt to cure the disease), Johnson also was subject to involuntary physical movements and facial tics that a modern observer likely would recognise as symptoms of Tourette’s syndrome. He spent much of his life alternating between bouts of extreme idleness and frenzied bursts of writing or other work, and berated himself for his slothful nature. Even Johnson’s closest friends and acquaintances seldom failed to comment on his slovenly appearance and frightful table manners. Meyers also goes into great detail on what many modern biographers suspect was Johnson’s darkest and most shame-ridden secret: an interest in flagellation as a means of sexual release. In short, Meyers does not spare his subject when it comes to Johnson’s failings — instead, he uses all of these woes to reinforce his belief in the extraordinary mental capacities that drove Johnson’s literary output, particularly in the legacy that he left the modern English language in his massive A Dictionary of the English Language (1755).

Samuel Johnson: The Struggle tries to avoid being merely another recollection of Johnson’s life, and Meyers works hard to balance sympathy for his subject with a more detached perspective. But for all of the information presented in the book, Meyers’ writing style can be wearying over the course of the biography’s 450-odd pages. Redundant or unnecessary descriptive adverbs slow down the pace of the writing, as does Meyers’ rather tiresome habit of inserting snippets of definitions from Johnson’s own dictionary when he wishes to emphasise a point. On multiple occasions, he refuses to let the text speak for itself; after presenting a statement or conversation or literary excerpt, he then rephrases it in his own words, repeating it more for the sake of repeating it than for shedding further light on the text or clarifying an unclear meaning. Meyers is also overly fond of comparing Johnson’s life circumstances to those of other noteworthy authors — in one of the more absurd comparisons, he mentions that both Johnson’s father (a bookseller) and William Shakespeare’s father (a glovemaker) certainly must have used leather in their trades. Yet to draw another comparison, in the end Meyers’ biography is rather like his subject — in that it manages to be successful in spite of itself. His focus is on Samuel Johnson’s struggle, and as a focus it works well enough to draw together all of the gossip and anecdotes, the competing biographies (Boswell’s was by no means the only ‘life of Johnson’ to be published within a few years of Johnson’s death) and contemporary literary criticism of Johnson’s works into a personal history of a deeply troubled but determined man.

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