Review of Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.

Publisher: Encyclopedia Britannica, Great Books of the Western World, Volume 44, 1952

This is the 37th volume of the original (54-volume) Great Books of the Western World set that I have finished to date–the others being 1, 4, 5, 6, 7, 10, 12, 13, 14, 15, 17, 18, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 29, 30, 32, 33, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 43, 47, 48, 50, 51, and 52. I have finished most of 9, 11, 19, 31, and 54 as well, and a good chunk of 28, as well as hundreds of secondary and tertiary classics both by authors in the set and authors outside of it.

I find Johnson to be vain and obnoxious–much like Boswell’s wife, evidently–but the value of this volume lies in how it filled me in on a particular time and place. While at times this particular book can bore even the most diligent and focused reader, I believe in my core that it is an honest (Boswell is a tad more honest in my opinion than Johnson) attempt to draw a picture of one of the secondary literary figures of his times. The book is long, and heavily footnoted, most of it by Boswell himself; and it contrasts itself with other biographies of Johnson written and released just after his death.

Now, why would I call Johnson a secondary figure? In his own literary club he was surrounded by Edmund Burke and Edward Gibbon, who wrote two of the four greatest books of the era; and Adam Smith, despite Johnson’s low opinion of him, completely overmatches Johnson intellectually (he wrote the other two). To me it seems clear that Johnson knew his own shortcomings and felt compelled to compensate for them by denigrating such giants as Swift, Hume, and Smith–thinkers who, to anyone who has read enough of the Western canon, are clearly and unambiguously gigantic intellects writing from considered and honest opinions. It seems to me as though Johnson led his own subculture, but that because he was only a secondary figure he never really became mainstream, though his subculture and the mainstream overlapped in places.

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