His Falstaff­ian vitalism


Johnson loved literary biography and practiced it superbly in his wonderful “Lives of the Poets” (1779-81). It is appropriate that he continues to be the subject of valuable literary biographies, of which the masterwork will always be his friend James Boswell’s “Life of Samuel Johnson” (1791). Boswell’s “Life” is so strong a book that common readers may wonder why more biographies of Johnson proliferate, to which the answer is the spiritual complexity and intellectual splendor of the most eminent of all literary critics. “Reflection” was one of Johnson’s favorite terms, and we need as many accurate reflections of and upon him that we can get. Johnson’s personality was worthy of Shakespearean representation: sometimes I rub my eyes to dispel the illusion that Shakespeare wrote, not Johnson’s work, but the man himself into existence. It delighted Johnson to identify himself with Falstaff, whose deliberate merriment he loved, even as he expressed moral disapproval of Shakespeare’s “compound of sense and vice; of sense which may be admired but not esteemed, of vice which may be despised, but hardly detested.” Thinking of his own dangerous melancholy, Johnson observed that Falstaff made himself necessary to Prince Hal “by the most pleasing of all qualities, perpetual gaiety, by an unfailing power of exciting laughter.”

more from Harold Bloom at the NYT here.