The Life of Samuel Johnson

Poet, lexicographer, critic, moralist, Dr. Samuel Johnson ( had in his friend James Boswell ( and the ideal biographer. Notoriously and self-confessedly intemperate (he availed himself of massive quantities of drink and prostitutes galore), Boswell shared with Johnson a huge appetite for life and threw equal energy into recording its every aspect in minute but telling detail. This irrepressible Scotsman was ‘always studying human nature and making experiments’, and the marvellously vivacious Journals he wrote daily furnished him with first-rate material when he came to write his biography. The result is a masterpiece that brims over with wit, anecdote and originality. Hailed by Macaulay as the best biography ever written and by Carlyle as a book ‘beyond any other product of the eighteenth century’, The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791) today continues to enjoy its status as a classic of the language. Don’t end your own biography without reading it.

For an entertaining introduction to Samuel Johnson as a subject please read this article from the New Yorker – ‘Man of Fetters’ Boswell may have turned to whores but it turns out Johnson was a masochist and enjoyed a good whipping whilst tied to a bedpost. Perhaps not expected in the ‘last great Augustan’.

Enquire at your local library or available in paperback at


The ideal accompaniment to this book is the BBC Radio 4 ‘In Our Time’ 45 minute episode on Johnson. Available from  With John Mullan, Professor of English at University College London; Jim McLaverty, Professor of English at Keele University; Judith Hawley, Senior Lecturer in English at Royal Holloway, University of London. Chaired by Melvyn Bragg. First broadcast Thursday 27 Oct 2005.


1312 pages in Penguin Classics

First published 1791

ISBN 978-0140436624


     James Boswell                    Samuel Johnson

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