"A library doesn't need windows. A library is a window." – Stewart Brand

Jul 16, 2009

Read Something! -- _Dr. Johnson and Mr. Savage_ (Richard Holmes)

Dr. Johnson and Mr. Savage


260 pp.


Samuel Johnson has come down to us through Boswell's biography as an imposing, established figure of legendary status. But in the late 1730s he was an unknown, troubled young poet wandering the streets of London. At this time he met and befriended Richard Savage, a mesmerizing and charismatic yet controversial and himself quite troubled figure on the London literary scene. Only a few years later, Savage would die and Johnson would publish a biography of his friend that would launch his own distinguished career. Holmes constructs a meticulous and intricate portrait of the friendship between these two men that is at once a double biography, a psychological excavation, an extended work of literary criticism of Johnson's biography of Savage, an exploration of how we construct our own and other's identities, and a "biography of a biography" -- the story both of how one biography was created from a brief period of intimacy and of the launching of a new literary form.

Appeal characteristics

  • Psychological focus, with psychoanalytical overtones (though not strongly pronounced)
  • Moves fairly slowly; carefully examines key events from multiple angles
  • Frequent literary criticism interwoven into the text (interpretation of an author's works to shed light on his psychological state)
  • Centers on a controversial figure with a mysterious birth and troubled life, who is also a charismatic genius
  • Investigative/speculative -- attempts to elucidate a relationship about which next to nothing is known
  • Does not delve into great historical detail unless necessary to do so for dicussion of the Johnson/Savage relationship or one of their own lives
  • -- but does give brief, 1-2 paragraph biographies of some minor figures who appear in the text
  • Stylistically, very readable; straightforward and almost conversational

Other notes

  • Not a thorough biography of either man (although Savage's life is covered in a fair amount of detail due to necessity of doing so in order to analyze Johnson's biography of him); Holmes is more interested in the relationship between the men and why Johnson wrote his biography the way he did

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