(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

In Life of Richard Savage (the full title is An Account of the Life of Mr. Richard Savage, Son of the Earl Rivers), his first full-length biography, published anonymously, Johnson describes the sensational life of a Grub Street writer and poet who was his friend and sometime companion in frolic and poverty. When Savage died in 1743, Edward Cave, the publisher, hurried to make arrangements with Johnson to write Savage’s notorious story. Johnson had to work quickly. He made some attempts to consult records and examine original documents, but he was less concerned with factual accuracy than with telling the truth about the character of a man who, though unfortunate, had brought most of his misfortunes on himself. Clearly, Johnson was aware of his friend’s many shortcomings. He also wished to defend Savage’s memory from malign attacks. Even more, however, he wanted to write an account that would be useful to readers both as an inspiration and as a warning.

According to Johnson’s account, which believed Savage’s claim to high birth, Savage’s mother, Lady Macclesfield, who wished to escape from her marriage, stated that she had committed adultery and that the child she carried had been fathered by Earl Rivers. Her husband’s application to Parliament to have the marriage dissolved was successful, and Lady Macclesfield’s baby was declared illegitimate. When the baby was born, Rivers acknowledged his paternity but took no other notice of the child. The baby’s mother, who remarried soon after her divorce, sent him to a poor woman to be reared as her own and paid no more attention to him. The baby came to be called Richard Savage. His maternal grandmother and his godmother took enough interest in him to pay for his care and his education, but because his mother stated that he had died, Rivers made no provision for him in his will. Thus, Richard Savage lost a legacy of six thousand pounds. Then, Savage’s mother tried to have him sent to the American plantations and, failing that, had him apprenticed to a shoemaker. When his nurse died, Savage found among her papers evidence showing who he really was. He began an unsuccessful lifelong campaign, which alternated pleas and vilification, to be recognized and supported by his mother.

Savage must have...

(The entire section is 938 words.)