Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Johnson's Savage

While on my travels, I picked up a second-hand copy of Johnson's justly famous Life of Savage, in a paperback edition (Harper Perennial) with an introduction by Richard Holmes, and with three short essays by Johnson appended: on Biography, Autobiography and Literary Biography.
  The introduction (sadly littered with typos, though the rest of the volume isn't) is excellent, making clear just how brilliant Johnson's Life of Savage is, and how original and important as a new kind of biography that broke with all earlier models – the uncritical hagiographies of the medieval period, the shapeless accumulations of material in the biographical dictionaries of the 17th century, and the collections of scandalous anecdotes popular in Johnson's own time. The Life of Savage is, among other things, something quite new: a psychological study of an extraordinary individual, the product of an unusually intense imaginative and emotional engagement on the author's part (one that led him, indeed, to distort the facts to suit his story). And, formally, this new kind of biography absorbs for the first time elements of various very English non-literary forms, such as the Newgate confessional, the sentimental ballad and the drama of the courtroom. What's more, this work establishes that great biography can be made from failed and thwarted lives, not only from the lives of the famous and successful. Johnson had discovered a new kind of narrative, one with endless possibilities – as was to be demonstrated by the development of biography into one of the (potentially) great literary forms, and one which the English have always done especially well, and especially often. 
  Since Johnson's time, English biography has been through many evolutions, including a tendency towards hagiography and gigantism in Victorian times, the development of more supple and fluid approaches – and shorter lives – in reaction to the Victorians, and the threat in more recent times of a return to oversized compendia of facts. Johnson, in his essay on biography, writes: 'I have often thought that there has rarely passed a life of which a judicious and faithful narrative would not be useful' (and indeed he once told Boswell 'that he could write the life of a Broomstick'). But what he had in mind was surely not the huge, compendious volumes devoted to lives of limited intrinsic interest by the toilers in today's biography industry. The Life of Savage comes in at a scant hundred pages, but there are few, if any, biographies that can match it for insight, for  narrative power and literary style, and for sheer emotional impact.
'Those are no proper judges of his conduct, who have slumbered away their time on the down of plenty, nor will any wise man presume to say, "Had I been in Savage's condition, I should have lived or written better than Savage."' Indeed.

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