Few modern scholars are better qualified to write the life of Samuel Johnson than Walter Jackson Bate. In 1955 Bate wrote The Achievement of Samuel Johnson, a detailed study of the man’s major literary works; he has, in addition, edited four volumes of the new Yale Edition of Johnson. For nearly thirty years he has taught, at Harvard, “The Age of Johnson,” a course which has trained many of today’s Johnsonian and eighteenth century scholars. Bate brings to his biography impressive credentials and provides one of the most satisfying and complete studies of Dr. Johnson yet attempted. The book is crowded with Johnson’s friends, family, and acquaintances, filled with incidents and anecdotes, and richly embellished with eighteenth century manners and customs. The world in which Dr. Johnson lived is as clearly presented as the biographer’s subject. This is all accomplished in a meticulous and scholarly manner, yet Bate’s book is an eminently readable narrative, making Dr. Johnson far more accessible to the general reader than any existing biography.
In defining his biographical approach to the life of Johnson, Bate singles out two problem areas. The first centers on the bulk of material which documents Johnson’s life after his fortieth year. The many biographies which treat Dr. Johnson (the most notable of these is, of course, James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.) describe his literary and conversational prowess, influential friends, and behavioral eccentricities. Few of these studies provide more than a glimpse of Johnson’s early childhood and formative years. Bate devotes considerable attention to the young Johnson: his schooling at Lichfield and Stourbridge, his childhood friends and activities, the disappointing year spent at Oxford, his marriage at twenty-five to a woman who was twenty-one years his senior, and the founding of the unsuccessful boarding school, Edial Hall, near Lichfield.
Bate identifies a second problem, one he feels has polarized the art of literary biography since the 1930’s. Prior to the advent of the New Criticism, it was commonplace to synthesize biographical matters with literary criticism and assume that the only way to present biographical subjects was to dwell at some length upon their works. Indeed, a biographer was expected to provide critical commentary on literary accomplishments. The New Critics insisted, however, on a “division of labor,” whereby biographers were to avoid literary investigations and literary critics were to stay clear of character analyses. Bate openly challenges this split between biography and criticism. His biography offers a thorough and exciting account of Dr. Johnson’s life and times; in addition, it studies Johnson’s major literary efforts and restores to biography the critical connection between a great personage and his work. There is, then, in Bate’s study a concentrated effort to illuminate his subject through the careful investigation of major literary achievements. It is no coincidence that Bate’s method of joining works and character mirrors the one employed by Johnson himself in Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets, whose fifty-two biographical portraits helped establish biography as a literary art form in England in the latter half of the eighteenth century. Bate is in excellent company in observing Johnson’s methods and objectives: to reveal defects and virtues in a truthful light for the purpose of better understanding human nature and the way men live. There was hardly a literary genre in which Dr. Johnson did not excel—poetry, criticism, the essay, fiction and, to a lesser degree, drama. But it was the “biographical part of literature” that most intrigued him.
Samuel Johnson was born September 18, 1709, in the town of Lichfield, Staffordshire, England, approximately 120 miles northwest of London. He was born into fairly comfortable surroundings, although his father’s imprudent business practices eventually led the family into near poverty. Young Samuel was a gifted child and astonished his parents and teachers with his remarkable aptitude for learning. In 1728, a few weeks after his nineteenth birthday, he entered Pembroke College, Oxford, only to leave the University a year later because of the family’s steadily worsening financial circumstances. Johnson felt intense disappointment at being denied an education and considerable guilt at failing those who had encouraged him. Despite this setback, and many others soon to follow, Johnson always managed to pull himself togther and get on with the business of living and working toward more promising expectations. But before he left his native Staffordshire for London and prospects of a literary career, he married Elizabeth Porter, a widow nearly twice his age, and founded a boarding school at Edial. The marriage lasted for nearly seventeen years and ended when Tetty died in 1752. The boarding school, however, was short-lived, and it is remembered more for Johnson’s illustrious student, David Garrick, than for its headmaster’s teaching innovations.
Bate points out that when Johnson arrived in London in 1737, he did so completely ignorant of the city, without any connections to speak of, and with twopence halfpenny in his pocket. For nearly nine years Johnson...
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