In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reads Dr Johnson’s witty and penetrating critical biographies of the great and good
By 1779, Samuel Johnson had attained that title by which he would become familiarly known: ‘Dr Johnson’. He wasn’t ‘doctored’ when he completed his most defining work (‘defining’ in every sense), the Dictionary of the English Language, in 1755. But when he came to write his Lives of the Poets, just five years before his death, he had become the era’s most celebrated man of letters, with an annual pension from the state to honour his services to scholarship and literature, and a reputation – and, indeed, a celebrity status – that continues to dwarf that of all other eighteenth-century writers. Who can picture Henry Fielding, or envisage Samuel Richardson? But Johnson, with his one-line pronouncements on everything from London to literature, death to dictionaries, remains remarkably alive to us. Read the rest of this entry
Fun facts about a pioneering ancient writer
1. Plutarch effectively invented the genre of biography. Plutarch’s innovative approach to biography was to take two important figures – one from Greek civilisation and the other from the Roman empire – and compare and contrast their characters, fortunes, and outlooks. This is the basis for his most famous work, the Parallel Lives.
2. As well as being a serious biographer, though, he was also something of a gossip. Plutarch loves to home in on an individual story that sheds some light on his subject – an anecdote, a moral tale, a quirk or distinctive character trait. And this is why we at Interesting Literature admire Plutarch so much: he saw the importance of trivia, and the fact that it isn’t always as trivial as it might first appear. His Greek Lives and Roman Lives (of which there are two very good selections by Oxford World’s Classics) show the individual personalities of the great statesmen and cultural figures he discusses, their quirks and foibles, their eccentricities. Read the rest of this entry