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260 CLARENCE TRACY SAMUEL JOHNSON' It will be no surprise to anybody who has kept in touch with John Wain's work that he has now written a book about Samuel Johnson. He has been working up to it for a long time. In his autobiography he described the impact made on him while a student at Oxford by his discovery of Johnson, and in his new book he tells of his purchasing then a copy of a folio edition of the Dictionary that he had to lug from the shop to his room in a handcart. His devotion to Johnson has lasted him all of his life, and over the years he has read, marked, learned, and inwardly digested all of Johnson's works, including even the notes to Shakespeare, the definitions in the Dictionary, and the ephemera. A year or two ago he edited a collection of johnson's critical writings, and he has reviewed books on Johnson. Consequently his Samuel Johnson is a very personal document, the record of a lifelong interest and a profession of faith, A Staffordshire man too and a freewheeling man of letters who, like Johnson, has fought his way upwards by his own exertions, John Wain understands Johnson as few other writers ever have, He must also be a lot like him in personality: independent, pugnacious, analytic in mind, and compassionate of heart. These are splendid qualifications for a biographer of Johnson, and they have helped make this in my opinion by a long shot the best modem general study of the man and his writings, Mr Wain makes no pretentions to original scholarship and has contributed no new facts. His chiefsources have been Johnson's own writings and Boswell's life. Though aware of Boswell's weaknesses as a biographer - his sentimental romanticism , his failure to appreciate johnson's understanding of the lower classes, his tendency to see Johnson as a surrogate father for himself - Wain had the good sense not to think it necessary to bolster up his belief in Johnson by denigrating Boswell. Understanding Boswell's strengths and his weaknesses, he used him where he could and ignored him where he could not. His indebtedness to a few other secondary sources, mainly modem, is acknowledged in a blanket 'Note on Sources' at the end of the book, in which he declares that 'so far as possible' he has 'avoided reading' other modem studies. Nevertheless elsewhere he expres~ ses respect for scholars and his knowledge ofJohnson has obviously kept abreast of modem scholarship on the subject as few other 'popular' writers have troubled to do. (His few small errors are of very little Significance.) I suspect that in saying what he does he means only that he tried to reach his own conclusions as independently as possible. Certainly he has never allowed anybody, not even Boswell, to come between him and Johnson. What Mr Wain contributes is not facts but understanding. Being an experienced novelist as well as like Johnson in temperament and situation, he is able to look behind the facts for feelings and motives, and to explain many things that scholars have often found inexplicable. He is especially good on Johnson's early years - his boyhood in Lichfield, his year at Oxford - as well as on his marriage and relations with women throughout his life. He knows both Lichfield and oI-John Wain, Samuel Johnson, Toronto: Macmillan of Canada 1974. Pp 388. $14.25; The Early . Biographies of Samuel Johnson, ed. O.M. Brack, Jrand Robert E. Kelley. Iowa City: Univer~ sity of Iowa Press 1973. Pp. xvi, 159ยท $1.5.00 SAMUEL JOHNSON 261 Oxford well and, as a novelist, has developed special insight into human relationships . In these respects he takes us far beyond Boswell, who had little knowledge of johnson's early years and who, in spite of all his whoring, knew little about women. Of course such insights as Mr Wain gives us are subjective, and it is always risky to make much use of such things in a biography. But he presents his honestly for what they are, without recourse to fictional devices, and reasons cogently about them. He may not always be...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 260-262
Launched on MUSE
2015-07-01
Open Access
No
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