Brown begins with a biographical sketch of Johnson’s life. He recounts the difficulties of Johnson’s youth, especially the scrofula in infancy that disfigured his face and injured his eyesight. It was a cruel fate for the son of a poor rural bookseller whose one advantage was access to his father’s stock of volumes. The disease left him marked for life; his contemporaries remarked the incongruity between Johnson’s physical appearance and mental ability. Atop his large, ungainly frame—often shabbily or carelessly attired—sat an extraordinary mind. Johnson possessed a photographic memory, a relish for combative conversation, and a passion for language that made him a deadly enemy in verbal jousting and one of Great Britain’s most quoted authors.
Brown then surveys Johnson’s writings, noting especially A Dictionary of the English Language (1755), which Johnson wrote virtually singlehandedly and which established him as a writer. Brown concludes with remarks on Johnson’s large circle of acquaintances among novelists, dramatists, philosophers, and thinkers of all sorts. In conversations with the best intellects in England, Johnson gained his reputation for sharp wit and Olympian pronouncements.
Brown’s sketch touches all the important points in Johnson’s life and provides a fair assessment of his accomplishments. The author is sympathetic toward his subject, though he alludes to the fact that Johnson usually generates fiercely favorable or unfavorable reactions among those who study his life. Johnson’s detractors are usually repelled by his uncouthness, aggressive personality, and sense of self-importance....
(The entire section is 681 words.)