Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Johnson in Retrospect

This week over at Critical Mass, the blog of the National Book Critics Circle, there will be a series of essays revisiting W. Jackson Bate's Samuel Johnson, the winner of the NBCC's general nonfiction prize back in 1977.

The first installment comes from Jerome Weeks, who writes '... as affectionate, as first-hand as Boswell’s Life is, Mr. Bate’s has the benefits of range, of context and distance (and, inevitably, more sources than were available in the 1780s). He uses all of these shrewdly, giving us vivid and affecting portraits of Johnson’s friends, the period’s politics and publishing industry. He provides analysis of Johnson’s prose style, his humor, his shabby poverty, his failures, his faith, his achievements with the Dictionary, his edition of Shakespeare and, finally, his crippling ailments, both physical and psychological."

Of the book's staying power, Weeks concludes "Since Mr. Bate’s life first appeared, scholars have pried away various pieces of Johnson and Boswell for closer, rewarding examination -- as with Mr. Sisman’s Boswell’s Presumptuous Task or Charlies [sic] Pierce’s The Religious Life of Samuel Johnson. But in those 30 years, no one has written a biography of the great man that can touch it."