sammy j was money


It is a nice symbolic irony, then, that this year marks the 300th anniversary of the greatest professional writer in English literature. “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money,” Samuel Johnson used to say. And while James Boswell, his friend and biographer, hurried to point out that “numerous instances to refute this will occur to all who are versed in the history of literature,” Johnson’s dictum does contain an essential truth about the kind of writer he was. “His character and manners were aggressive, and he saw life itself as a perpetual contest,” writes Jeffrey Meyers in the introduction to his fluent and accessible new biography, Samuel Johnson: The Struggle. The other new life of Johnson to appear this season, Samuel Johnson: A Biography, by Peter Martin, is more academic and less literary than Meyers’, but it might as well share that combative subtitle. Martin, too, sees Johnson’s life as a long “contest” with poverty, sickness, and neurosis—a contest in which Johnson’s talent and professionalism allowed him to triumph.

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