Dr. Johnson and His Many Maladies

From The Washington Post:

Two new biographies testify to the talents and suffering of the 18th century's most celebrated wit.

Book Born to a small-town bookseller in 1709 — the year that Richard Steele launched a media revolution with the Tatler, the first popular British periodical — Johnson lived through seven and a half decades in which the periodical press ignited revolution in the American colonies and, by the time of his death in 1784, was helping erode the ancien regime in France. Slowly he won acclaim for his wit and sharply worded opinions in the new media. At the height of the British Empire, he denounced the very notion of imperialism. A benefactor of the poor and a foe of slavery, he opposed the revolt of the American colonies. “How is it,” he demanded, “that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”

Nowadays Johnson's novel Rasselas and his drama “Irene” are seldom opened outside a classroom. But even people who haven't read any of his works know of his monumental 1755 Dictionary of the English Language. Its two gargantuan volumes not only encompassed the voice and history of a people; they also shepherded wandering linguistic traditions into a single parade with himself as grand marshal. Johnson's insubordinate diction enlivens every page. Ink is “the black liquor with which men write.” Purist: “one superstitiously nice in the use of words.” Lexicographer: “a harmless drudge.” With this feat of showmanship, he turned himself into a forceful influence on other writers. He became that legendary sage and raconteur, Dr. Johnson.

More here.