The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.

by James Boswell

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Why is Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson considered a literary masterpiece?

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James Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson is considered a literary masterpiece because of Boswell's hard work and devotion to his biographic art, his artistic sense that he employed to develop his scenes and actions, and the vigorous energy of the work in depicting the authentic humanity and personality of Johnson.

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Professor Charles Grosvernor Osgood produced an abridgment of James Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson in 1917. In his edition, Osgood includes an introduction in which he refers to the biography as “one of the greatest masterpieces of the world.” Then he proceeds to explain why this work is indeed a literary masterpiece.

First, Boswell created this work with “the industry and the devotion” of an artist. He spent more than twenty years collecting and organizing his material, both on paper and in his mind. He hunted down little known facts, spoke with nearly everyone who knew Johnson, and regretted any missing pieces. Boswell was searching for the fullness of truth, which he wanted to present in his biography. Since masterpieces are those works that best reveal the truth in all its wonderful complexity, we can see why Boswell's final product is indeed a masterpiece.

Osgood also notes that while hard work and “love of truth” alone do not create a masterpiece (although they contribute to it), Boswell also possessed a “keen sense of artistic values.” His work is filled with details and fascinating scenes, but these also form a united whole. Boswell brings out contrasts, creates high “dramatic action,” and fills his work with “picturesque moments.” His scenes draw readers in and hold their attention why remaining precise, economic in words, and lifelike.

Osgood continues his introduction by noting that Boswell's work “exerts the vigorous energy of a masterpiece.” It exudes personality. It brings Samuel Johnson to life and sets him before readers in his “full force and vitality.” Boswell presents Johnson in an impressive fashion in all his genius and complexity. Indeed, Boswell's Johnson is the authentic man with all his humanity earnestly and zealously presented to readers.

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