Samuel Johnson, By Peter Martin

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The Independent Culture

Tackling the best known of all biographical subjects is a tall order, but Martin has achieved an enthralling and original portrait. Despite his Stephen Fry-like celebrity ("I believe there is hardly a day in which there is not something about me in the papers"), Johnson emerges as sad and afflicted, in keeping with his dark reflection shortly before death on "the general disease of my life".

The index section devoted to his character contains 22 entries under "melancholia". Martin's Johnson is also far more enlightened than is customarily believed: "One is struck by how modern he is."

Martin notes how a pamphlet from 1739 expressed "revulsion over the obscene arrogance and arrogation of power at the expense of the individual." Were he alive today, Johnson would have not shortage of targets for his brave and angry shafts.