I reviewed a book on Johnson by David Nokes here. For "the basics" looking back at it, it does a decent job of understanding just a bit about a very complex and intellectually famous man ... this book is more detailed. It suffers from some inaccuracy and unwarranted assumptions about possible sexual issues, possibly to increase sales. Johnson indeed very much enjoyed women, but being as unattractive and besieged with physical and mental deficiencies, he was often denied close relationships.
What he is best known for his his Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755. Given our current cultural inattention to history, he is largely unknown to the general, or even educated public.
Until the completion of the Oxford English Dictionary 173 years later, Johnson's was viewed as the pre-eminent English dictionary. According to Walter Jackson Bate, the Dictionary "easily ranks as one of the greatest single achievements of scholarship, and probably the greatest ever performed by one individual who laboured under anything like the disadvantages in a comparable length of time".
His mind resembled the vast amphitheatre, the Colisæum at Rome. In the centre stood his judgement, which like a mighty gladiator, combated those apprehensions that, like the wild beasts of the Arena, were all around in cells, ready to be let out upon him. After a conflict, he drives them back into their dens; but not killing them, they were still assailing him.
Johnson was born in Lichfield, in England’s West Midlands, in 1709, and grew up to be the dominant literary figure of his day—maybe even the most famous man alive. He did it against tremendous odds. He suffered from a list of physical and psychological maladies straight out of the Book of Job, including tuberculosis of the lymph nodes, asthma, gout, near blindness, strange twitches and spasms, overwhelming depression, and probably Tourette’s Syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorder to boot. Physicians didn’t think he’d survive infancy.
For me, Johnson is not only interesting historically but personally. My psychological problems pale in significance next to Johnson, as so do any contribution my life or writings do. Much as the proverbial man throwing a few starfish back into the sea being admonished by a passerby; "You can't help all of them", with the response being "I helped that one". Perhaps something I write will help a person, or maybe even two.
Depression, procrastination, sloth, concerns about eternity, being too prone to moving an argument to a fight, but loving the chance to discuss especially those with opposing views are traits I share to a lesser extent.
He is fascinating for his persistence against his many struggles, and the majesty of what he was able to accomplish in the face of those. Today, given the largesse of government for those with his type of conditions, and available drugs and counselling, he may well have been a largely isolated figure watching various media and doing essentially nothing.
How much somewhat tortured genius have we forgone through well intentioned, but possibly disabking "kindness"?