Samuel Johnson: The Struggle

January 29, 2009

Samuel Johnson: The Struggle is Jeffrey Meyers' 21st biography, with most of the preceding 20 dealing with modern figures such as Ernest Hemingway or D.H. Lawrence. Here, he takes his first steps into 18th-century territory unsurely, sticking to authors that he knows. He cites Gertrude Stein on the need for concentration, Bernard Shaw on Johnson's schoolmaster and John Betjeman on the tricky art of writing witty verses. For Johnson's (alleged) love of being beaten he quotes Krafft-Ebing, and for Johnson's war on vanity he quotes Yeats. Johnson's character, he asserts, had "a great deal in common with another great Englishman", Winston Churchill; both inherited "black dog" depression from their fathers.

Such parallels are not restricted to 20th-century figures, for Meyers also finds that Johnson and Shakespeare had "a great deal in common". Shakespeare's father used leather "for glove making", while Johnson's father "used it for bookbinding". Johnson strongly disapproved of Garrick, Meyers claims, for changing Shakespeare's plays "at will", whereas Johnson sought to find the most accurate texts. Johnson's most memorable lines of verse, "like those of Shakespeare and Kipling", are part of "our cultural heritage".

All through this gloriously old-fashioned biography there are examples of Meyers revelling in the material he presents. He devotes pages to images of Johnson devouring food, eating until "the veins of his forehead swelled", putting away legs of pork "boyl'd till it drops from the bone", veal pies "with plumbs & sugar" and buttocks of beef. He wallows in his treatment of Johnson's drinking: "I can't drink a little, child," he admonished Hannah More, giving himself up to becoming "a hardened and shameless tea-drinker".

Sex is mediated into violence and conveyed to us in images of Johnson, the six-footer, knocking down and placing his foot on the neck the bookseller Thomas Osborne, or tossing a gentleman who had taken his theatre seat into the pit. Animals to which he is compared range from a family mastiff or old bulldog to a bull, a whale, a dancing bear and an elephant; best of all, while in Scotland there is the image of Johnson gathering up the tails of his coat to resemble a pouch, putting out his hands "like feelers" and bounding across the room like a kangaroo.

There is no new research in this book and familiar stories are blended with bizarre assertions. The claim that Johnson "hated teaching" seems odd for one who applied for six teaching posts, and the idea that his novel Rasselas teems "with sexual imagery" means little more than that Johnson's Abyssinia is filled with images of mountains and crevices. The most charmingly eccentric features of this book are where Meyers embarks on seemingly unrelated topics, such as a history of coaching inns, a study of prisons ("Crime and punishment were still medieval") or a discussion of the economics of 18th-century prostitution.

Through it runs the thread of modern biographies; Johnson's liking for flagellation reminds Meyers that T.E. Lawrence "persuaded a young friend to whip him at regular intervals", and his desire to "take a ramble" to India stirs memories of D.H. Lawrence's desire to travel "to the ultima Thule". As Meyers traces through his life with the dedication of a Sherlock Holmes (whom he invokes), Johnson remains the Great Cham of British letters, whether being arrested for debt before his neighbours or inveighing against French meanness like a chauvinistic John Bull.

Samuel Johnson: The Struggle

By Jeffrey Meyers. Basic Books, 400pp, £20.99. ISBN 9780465045716. Published 11 November 2008

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