Dr. Johnson and Mr. Savage Critical Essays

Richard Holmes

Dr. Johnson and Mr. Savage

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Richard Holmes, author of distinguished biographies of Percy Bysshe Shelley and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and of a study of the biographer’s method (FOOTSTEPS), uses his new book to continue his discussion of biography as a Romantic form. He suggests that Dr. Johnson’s first major biography, a tribute to his friend, the minor poet Richard Savage, virtually invented the story of the isolated, rejected poet, punished for the originality of his insights and the uncompromising nature of his character.

Savage pioneered poetry that was intense and personal. Indeed, he founded his career on the allegation that he was a bastard of Lady Macclesfield, who disowned and tried to persecute him. Savage’s claims were doubtful, but he apparently believed them, and convinced Johnson and others that he had been a wronged man—in spite of the fact that Savage often acted unscrupulously by betraying the trust of friends who lent him money. A volatile man, he was convicted and later pardoned for having murdered a man in a tavern brawl.

In a narrative that rivals a good novel, Holmes reconstructs both Savage’s and Johnson’s biographies, showing how the biographer and subject supported each other’s bid for respectability and shared each other’s despair over lack of recognition. The young Johnson was nearly as downtrodden as Savage and was mesmerized by the example of Savage’s style and adamant claims for himself. Indeed, Holmes contends that Savage serves as Johnson’s double, creating a literary image for the biographer that helped him to produce an enduring image not only of the outcast poet, but of the biographer’s quest to redeem his subject and to speak for him to the world.

Sources for Further Study

Commonweal. CXXI, November 4, 1994, p. 32.

London Review of Books. November 4, 1993, p. 7.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. August 28, 1994, p. 3.

New Statesman and Society. VI, October 22, 1993, p. 37.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIX, September 4, 1994, p. 14.

The Times Literary Supplement. October 29, 1993, p. 11.

The Wall Street Journal. August 25, 1994, p. A10.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIV, September 4, 1994, p. 3.