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What Samuel Johnson Knew

Reading Freya Johnston's London Review of Books review of The Literary Criticism of Samuel Johnson: Forms of Artistry and Thought, by Philip Smallwood, I was delighted to see the following:


"Johnson's creative instincts coincided with his critical attitudes in a deep-seated resistance to systems -- moral, philosophical, literary, historical -- and in a related awareness of the confusing variety of life, a sense of its arbitrariness and uncertainty, and of how little of it can ever by determined by our own plans. Hence, in part, his love of what he sometimes called 'secret history'. In the Rambler he argued that biography . . . . must be anecdotal so that we are able to understand its subjects as people close to ourselves; literary criticism, in turn, must remain close to biography so that we can understand its origins in human ambition and human fallibility . . ."


Academic critics, who are overwhelmingly and irritatingly wedded to systems and theories, fail to understand that "the confusing variety of life" and "human ambition and human fallibility" are the true concerns of biography. The urge to write reviews intended to showcase the writer's cleverness in theory creation is simply vanity, an intellectual pirouette that fails to illuminate the subject and often does a grave injustice to the author of the book.


© Cathy Curtis 2024

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