Samuel Johnson by Walter Jackson Bate

In September 2017 I had the privilege of fulfilling a long standing ambition. I visited Dr Johnson’s House in Gough Square, London. (

Having enjoyed his essays and literary criticism for 35 years, it’s plain to me the man had more wit, style and humanity than many civilizations I could name.  To immerse yourself in the life of this titan of English letters turn to Samuel Johnson: A Biography by Walter Jackson Bate (

It’s always worth going back to Samuel Johnson because his statements and judgments, on literature, on politics, on religion, on conduct, are still relevant today. Professor Bate writes on his first page of ‘the immense reassurance he gives to human nature’, and on his last that Johnson gave the world ‘the most precious of all the gifts one can give to another, and this is hope’. Importantly, Johnson was not simply a sparkling wit, but one of the greatest moralists of the English-speaking world.

Today few literary greats appear to us to have been more solidly established, but Johnson’s success was not a given. For more than two-thirds of his life he was reduced to the point of contemplating suicide, was twice arrested for debt, and was twice on the verge of insanity. It was only when he accepted a small pension from the state that he enjoyed any degree of security. Raw courage allowed him to combat envy, snobbishness and malice. Most humble born men are trapped in lives from which their social superiors insist they should never emerge.

Walter Jackson Bate’s admiration for Johnson is undisguised. He makes us love him too by judiciously pleasuring us with Johnson’s speech and writing. The great man’s friends tossed ideas at him to get a reaction. What did Dr. Johnson think about a second marriage? ‘It represented the triumph of hope over experience’. What did he think about marital conversation? ‘A man is generally better pleased when he has a good dinner upon his table than when his wife talks Greek’. Pressed to say whether Herrick or Smart was the better poet, he replied, ‘There is no settling the point of precedence between a louse and a flea’. Or his definition of wit: ‘The unexpected copulation of ideas’. Or the tedium of people who talk about the weather: ‘You are telling us that of which none but men in a mine or a dungeon can be ignorant’.

When first published, this magisterial biography won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. It will certainly be on the shelves of all who love Samuel Johnson. Check if this award winning biography is in stock at your local library.

668 pages in Counterpoint

First published 1978

ISBN  978-1582435244

Walter Jackson Bate.jpg

Walter Jackson Bate

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