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LIFE OF JOHNSON
EDITED BY NATHANIEL HORTON BATCHELDER,
SAMUEL JOHNSON has the almost unique distinction of being an author who is better known than his works. He is admittedly the dominant figure in later eighteenth century English literature. Professor Barrett Wendell speaks of him and Ben Jonson as two men who have preeminently guided the course of letters, each in his own age. Taine speaks of him as “a strange character, the most esteemed of his time, a sort of literary dictator,” and adds that “his criticism becomes law; men crowd to hear him talk; he is the arbiter of style.” Yet Rasselas, the Vanity of Human Wishes and even the Lives of the Poets are likely to remain unopened, while the works of his certainly lesser contemporary, Goldsmith, who looked up to Johnson as a patron and protector, are widely read. The reason for this neglect may be found again in Taine, who says of his style: “Classical prose attains its perfection in him as classical poetry in Pope. Art cannot be more consummate or nature more forced”; and of his matter: “His truths are too true; we already knew his precepts by heart.” Indeed, both substance and style are out of date.
It is not necessary, then, for the pupil to read much of the works of Johnson — a chapter or two of Rasselas and a typical passage from the Lives of the Poets, — on Addison, for instance — are quite sufficient to show the philosophy, the critical judgment, and the style of Johnson as a writer. But of the man himself more must be said. He who could