Review: Samuel Johnson bio shows man behind text

AP News
Posted: Nov 09, 2009 3:27 PM

"Samuel Johnson: A Life" (Henry Holt and Company, 432 pages, $30), by David Nokes: David Nokes, a prominent scholar of 18th-century English literature, takes a fresh look at Samuel Johnson, the man known as the creator of the dictionary. In doing so, Nokes shows a very human side of Johnson, and the perspective of his times.

Poverty was Johnson's companion for much of his life. A lack of money kept him from graduating from Oxford, which set up a poignant effort to have Oxford honor him, "allowing him to write himself A.M. in the title page" of his recently completed dictionary.

He was forced to live in squalor and was arrested for nonpayment of debts when he was well past middle age. This was perhaps what led him to coin his memorable phrase, "No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money."

Johnson left behind a huge collection of oft repeated quotes, including, "I esteem biography, as giving us what comes near to ourselves, what we can turn to use."

He also left behind grist for a huge collection of biographies, including one by his most famous biographer, James Boswell.

Johnson said about biographies, "Sir, there is no doubt as to peculiarities: the question is, whether a man's vices should be mentioned..."

Nokes presents Johnson's peculiarities, both physical and psychic, including his marriage, when he was 25, to 45-year-old Tettie. Nokes claims that this union was made for money. He also writes about Johnson's unusual devotion to Hester Thrale, who opened her household to him for 17 years while he worked on his annotated Shakespeare; and to Frank Barber, a freed slave, to whom Johnson bequeathed his estate.

Nokes has written an excellent biography that shows Johnson's human side and his struggles. Although many who have come to know the famous man of letters from his other biographies may disagree with some of Nokes' conclusions, there is much fresh material to interest readers.