Book: Samuel Johnson: A Biography

Author: Professor John Wain

Review by: Phil Bolton, founder, Global Atlanta

Phil Bolton

During a recent Christmas tour of homes in Atlanta, I visited several newly, beautifully restored houses and was most struck by the absence of books on the shelves. It was said that in the South every house had both a Bible and a Sears catalogue, yet aside from a few paperbacks I saw hardly any books at all. Their absence made me think back to the biography of the English literary giant Samuel Johnson by the Oxford Professor John Wain, which I read in 2019.

The Club: Johnson, Boswell and the Friends Who Shaped an Age, a highly acclaimed biography of the life and letters about one of the greatest literary figures of the 18th century, was published in the past year, but I decided to go with Wain’s book, which I had acquired for $1.25(!) in the mid-1970s when it was first published but had never read.

When coming across those thousand-page anthologies of English literature that many a college student has been forced to acquire, it’s remarkable to think that Mr. Johnson probably had read all of the originals and memorized many. It certainly was another time — no Kindle, television, Internet or other distractions from concentrated reading and study.

There were some similarities, however, to our modern age. In the 1730s, Mr. Johnson struggled to support himself through journalism. His father had been an unsuccessful bookseller, so he had grown up surrounded by books. Yet even this auspicious platform wouldn’t forecast his emergence as a poet, playwright, essayist, moralist, literary critic, biographer, editor and creator of perhaps one of the greatest dictionaries ever compiled.

He is best remembered for that dictionary, as well as the biography written about him by his devoted follower James Boswell. England’s leading lights were attracted to him like moths to a flame, from political scientist Edmund Burke to economist Adam Smith, painter Joshua Reynolds, actor David Garrick and historian Edward Gibbon. They all joined his “club” once a week in a private room at Turk’s Head Tavern in London for conversation and companionship.

Wain’s book is exceptional, however, because it doesn’t just focus on the notables to whom Mr. Johnson stayed connected. “He mixed with people who were desperate human wrecks, some of whom were close friends; to the end of his life he filled his house with people who were not successes in the eyes of the world. Yet at the same time he conversed on equal and better than equal terms with the most important  and brilliant people in that brilliant age,” the professor says of him. 

The book reminded me of the advice a long-passed uncle of mine would tell me: “Don’t let your book learning interfere with your education.”

No one understood that maxim better than Samuel Johnson.