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The Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped an Age

3.91  ·  Rating details ·  891 ratings  ·  184 reviews
The story of the group of extraordinary eighteenth-century writers, artists, and thinkers who gathered weekly at a London tavern

Named one of the 10 Best Books of 2019 by the New York Times Book Review  • A Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2019 •  A Kirkus Best Book of 2019
“Damrosch brings the Club’s redoubtable personalities—the brilliant minds, the jousting wits, the ten
Hardcover, 488 pages
Published March 26th 2019 by Yale University Press
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Jun 22, 2020 rated it really liked it
"Sir, you have but two topics, yourself and me. I am sick of both."
-- Samuel Johnson to James Boswell


The Club is a frame biography. But it is certainly more than its parts. At its core, Damrosch nails together small biographies of Johnson, Boswell, Joshua Reynolds, Edmund Burke, David Garrick, Adam Smith, Edward Gibbons, and other minor characters/members of "the Club." But this book goes beyond this. It is also a history of the age, using the members of the club as a lens into England in the mi
Reading about the mid-to-late eighteenth century often makes me think of Duff Cooper's comment, that the wit and conversations then in evidence were such as ‘had never, perhaps, been heard since certain voices in Athens fell silent two thousand years before’. Cooper was talking about Paris, but the line is arguably even more applicable to London, where Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, Edward Gibbon, David Garrick, Joshua Reynolds and Edmund Burke (respectively the world's greatest lexicographer, b ...more
Sep 20, 2019 rated it really liked it
“They were great talkers because they knew and did so much, and many of them rose to accomplishments of the highest order. No fewer than seven — Johnson, Burke, Reynolds, Garrick, Gibbon, Adam Smith, and Boswell — made up a constellation of talent that has rarely if ever been equaled.” The Club was started in 1764 by the painter Joshua Reynolds and the writer Samuel Johnson. Membership was strictly limited. Some, but not all, of the men were (or became) famous. They were required to be intellige ...more
W.D. Clarke
Sep 08, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2019, 18c
Really, really enjoyed Professor Damrosch's tour and company. As a now-budding 18C dilletante, I say that this is the perfect book to accompany any reading of Boswell's justly celebrated The Life of Samuel Johnson.

What it isn't, though, is a thoroughly rigorous or exhaustive exhuming of the careers of the other club members. Think of this , rather, as a personable, winning, urbane and wise set of Very Short Introductions to Burke, Gibbon, Sheridan, Smith and others, energetic little electrons o
Apr 29, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a history of one of the original London clubs that developed as a place where the emerging bourgeois professional and literary class of London could gather for food, drink, fellowship, and talking - lots of talking. The club members were self-selected and it was hard to join. Members included Joshua Reynolds, Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, Edward Gibbon, David Garrick, and others, eventually including James Boswell, who wrote the great biography of Johnson. The “Club” began in ...more
Kevin Lopez
Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.
-Dr. Samuel Johnson

Unlike some later clubs, it had no premises of its own, but met in an ordinary London pub. The members included Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, Edmund Burke, Edward Gibbon, and Adam Smith—arguably the greatest British critic, biographer, political philosopher, historian, and economist of all time.
-Leo Damrosch, The Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped an Age

The decades-long friendship between Dr.
Fern Adams
Feb 16, 2019 rated it really liked it
The Club was a group of polymaths who met in an inn once a week in the second half of the 1700s. Made up of actors, artists, intellectuals and writers, many of the members were people who remain well known to this day; Johnson, Boswell, Joshua Reynolds, Oliver Goldsmith, Edmund Burke and Adam Smith amongst others. I was expecting this book to be about the meetings themselves and what they entailed and discussed during these however rather it was a book of biographies of the members. Damrosch tak ...more
Peter Tillman
While there is good stuff here, my interest flagged about halfway in. It's a long time ago, and TMI about characters I don't care much about. The book is due back, and I think I'm done.

Joseph Epsein's rave review: [paywalled. Ask if you would like a copy].

"What historical era produced the greatest aggregate of human intelligence? Fifth century B.C. Greece provided Socrates and Plato, Pericles and Phidias. In 18th-century France there were the philosophes,
Andy Klein
Jun 18, 2019 rated it it was ok
As an avid Johnsonian, I was amused by the book but learned very little. As has been remarked by others, the title is misnamed. The book focused entirely on the relationship between Boswell and Johnson, touching on some of the early members of Johnson’s conversational club here and there. The book had almost nothing to do with the club itself. While I know that the events of club meetings only exist within Boswell’s journals and his Life of Johnson, the author should have named the book somethin ...more
Oct 25, 2019 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Flaneurs, raconteurs and litterateurs
Recommended to Alan by: Bronwen
Following Leo Damrosch's lead, I'm going to quote liberally from the subjects of The Club in this review—for, although his own prose is certainly lively and accessible, the real stars are the individuals Damrosch studies, like Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, Edmund Burke, Edward Gibbon, Adam Smith and others, who began meeting and exchanging ideas in London's Turk's Head Tavern, back in 1764.

Although a (much-changed) version of the Club exists even in the present day, The Club focuses on its firs
Bruce Katz
Apr 29, 2020 rated it it was amazing
A hundred or so years ago, when I was in grad school, I took a course on seventeenth century literature, the so-called Age of Johnson. I found the reading onerous, but the professor, Paul Fussell, was one of the most renowned scholars of the period so I persisted. It didn't hurt that Fussell was a very smart, very entertaining instructor. Looking back I'd have to say that he planted the seeds of a curiosity about that era that persisted over the years. Which is what prompted me to read this book ...more
Jan 13, 2021 rated it really liked it
The club is a centering device for this book but not a feature--a disappointment several have mentioned. I hoped for more insight into how membership in the club and the relationships and creative interactions among members impacted their creative trajectories and achievements. That's still a book I’d like to read.

Despite what if isn't, what it is is still a worthy read, though if you’ve read Boswell you're familiar with a good deal of what's covered here.
Alvaro de Menard
Feb 05, 2019 rated it liked it
There's not much to say about the titular Club, certainly not enough to fill 400 pages. Damrosch's strategy is to write about the lives of its members, and the general milieu they lived in. So, rather than a history of the club this book is mostly a series of independent biographies.

Adam Smith gets one chapter (8 pages!), Joshua Reynolds gets one chapter, Edmund Burke gets one chapter, and so on. Johnson and Boswell get a few each, and some about the two of them together.

There are two problems w
Brian Willis
Apr 03, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This book is a vital survey of the intellectual and literary circle of luminaries who came to intersect their interests in an informal meeting called "the Club" at a local tavern called the Mitre. Ostensibly, it also spotlights many of the socio-cultural personas of the late 18th century in Britain: Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, David Garrick, Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, Joshua Reynolds, and Edward Gibbon.

Alongside his previous 2 books, a biography of Jonathan Swift and an artistic biography of W
Caroline Breashears
I am currently reading this book, which has a fantastic focus: the famous London club featuring Samuel Johnson, David Garrick, James Boswell, Edmund Burke, Topham Beauclerck, Adam Smith, and other luminaries. Damrosch is really nailing it with Johnson and Boswell, though he has an unfortunate tendency to prefer raunchy anecdotes. His chapter on Garrick is also solid.

His account of Adam Smith, however, is superficial and biased. He relies, for instance, on Duncan Foley (of _Adam's Fallacy_) rathe
Jeff Keehr
Apr 23, 2019 rated it liked it
This is largely a rehash of Boswell's The Life of Johnson with additional biographical details on each of the major members of the Literary Club that Johnson helped to found. It contains some interesting theories on the real nature of Johnson's relationship with Hester Thrale. It includes a lot of the stupid things that Boswell did and said during his lifetime, most of which we can do without. Boswell was an ass but he was also the artist who left us with a masterpiece. I like how William Gaddis ...more
Abigail Bok
Nov 12, 2019 rated it really liked it
“The Club” was an informal gathering of the brilliant and the witty, founded by Sir Joshua Reynolds and Samuel Johnson in 1764. A select group of men would gather in a pub once a week for an evening of liquid indulgence and conversation, focused on the debate of large ideas.

Leo Damrosch’s book attempts to capture the group and the cultural and historical context that produced it. This is probably an impossible undertaking, and that it doesn’t entirely succeed is forgivable. The cover blurb descr
Oct 29, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The best (male) minds of late 18th-century England belonged to a casual club that met once a week at the Turk’s Head Tavern for food, drink, and conversation. The Club is the loose alignment that gives focus to this entertaining book, which opens a window to the era by way of several biographies.

A sentence from the prologue sums them up:
The members included Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, Edmund Burke, Edward Gibbon, and Adam Smith—arguably the greatest British critic, biographer, political phil
Sherwood Smith
In spite of the title, this is really a series of short biographies, with an emphasis on Boswell and Johnson. So readers looking for a history of this club, or others of the period, would do better elsewhere.

But for an introduction to the lives of some of the members (specifically those around Johnson and Boswell) this is engagingly readable, with a lot of pictures. The main thrust is the “good parts” version of Boswell's journals, swapped off with his Life of Johnson. What detective work there
Noah Goats
Feb 18, 2020 rated it it was amazing
The Club is a sort of group biography about some of the greatest artists and intellectuals of 18th century Britain. It focuses in particular on Samuel Johnson and James Boswell, but also gets into the interesting lives of David Garrick (the greatest actor of his day), Edward Gibbon, Joshua Reynolds, Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, Oliver Goldsmith, and others. These men were (mostly) friends of Johnson’s and they were all members of the same club.

The Club covers so much territory that it can’t do its
This book examines life in 18th century London focusing on the lives of the members of “The Club.” This included some the most accomplished and famous men of the time — the preeminent authors, thinkers, playwrights, and artists in Britain. Based on the premise, it seems like a book that I would love. I’m not sure why I didn’t enjoy it more. Perhaps it’s more worthwhile to read Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, and Edward Gibbon than it is to read about them.
William Dury
May 28, 2019 rated it liked it
I read Boswell many years ago. “The Life” is a truly great book, one of those foundation of civilization things. “The Club” gives insight into the other members of The Club, most prominently Reynolds, Burke, Gibbon and Smith. Not to be suspicious but they all conform neatly to type. Burke a bit slick, Reynolds smarmy and charming, Smith dull and Gibbon the impossibly good writer endearingly besotted by his work. Boswell is presented as such a dim witted drunken rake that one wonders how he wrote ...more
Feb 10, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history, biography
The Club (2019) is Leo Damrosch's entertaining history of the London Literary Club, an assemblage of major 18th century figures in English arts that met weekly at London's Turk's Head Tavern. A Harvard professor, Demrosch is the perfect interpreter of that diverse group and of its consequences. This is a delightful history of the literary scene in 18th century England, beautifully told in both words and paintings from the time, each with a commentary that brings them to life and sets their conne ...more
Sometimes when reading nonfiction, one can begin to feel the moment where as the reader, it all becomes a little dull. Not through the subject or even any real fault of the author at all, but because it’s the nature of many nonfiction reads that at some point you must hit “reset” & switch to fiction or have a break for a day or so..

Leo Damrosch’s “The Club” - Is absolutely NOT one of these. This absolute gem of a novel is instantly accessible, engaging & oddly compelling, given that it is not ne
Jan 17, 2019 rated it it was amazing
In the second half of the eighteenth century a remarkable group of men met weekly in the Turk’s Head Tavern in London. Known simply as The Club, the group included Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, Joshua Reynolds, Edmund Burke, Oliver Goldsmith, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Adam Smith and Edward Gibbon.

This book traces the fortunes of those men as well as some of the talented women who were their friends and supporters like the writers Fanny Burney, Hannah Moore, and Charlotte Lennox, and the woman
Feb 11, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history-world
The Shakespearean actor Garrick, the portrait artist Reynolds, the opposition politician Burke and other well-known members of a group of London’s most famous second-class, yet accomplished, men and women in the middle of the 18th century are featured in this series of linked biographical and social sketches. James Boswell and Dr. Samuel Johnson dominate, with Boswell’s odd behavior and personality featuring perhaps a bit too prominently. Much like Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club, Damrosch ...more
Michael G
Aug 28, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: biography, history
I was sorry this book ended, along with the rich lives that are explored. With much lively human detail, the Club members’ times, friends, personalities, features and foibles are convincingly presented, so that you feel you know them. There is no perfection in these widely different men (and women friends, too), but then greatness is not perfection. If one has read “The Life of Samuel Johnson,” this book completes the canvas, or one could read this and still learn much about Johnson and all his ...more
Angie Boyter
Mar 01, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: netgalley
An intellectual history of the late eighteenth century through the lives of some remarkable men

Eighteenth-century England was a lively place! Captain Cook was exploring the South Seas. Playwrights like Richard Sheridan and Oliver Goldsmith were writing plays we still enjoy, and David Garrick was acting in them. Adam Smith was inventing modern economics. And so on. Despite the breadth of the innovation, exploration, and accomplishments in that era, though, the cast of characters who played major
Elisa Fierro
This book is not a novel, but it reads like one - and that is meant as a compliment to the author. As a teacher and a student of literature, I have often had to read texts of literature history or criticism that - to me - seemed to have been written just because the author had to publish something and did not care to be understood. Well, this is not the case. Leo Damrosch is not only a well prepared historian but also a great storyteller and manages to bring the different characters to life. Thr ...more
reading, like kramer’s apartment makeover, is all about “levels”. damrosch pitches “the club” at an audience largely unfamiliar with the subj. but to anyone intimate with late augustan literature, or bozzer’s “life of johnson”, this survey won’t add much. the author’s moralising glosses are tiresome. the editing is injudicious.
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Leo Damrosch is an American author and professor. In 2001, he was named the Ernest Bernbaum Professor of Literature at Harvard University.[1] He received a B.A. from Yale University, an M.A. from Cambridge University, where he was a Marshall Scholar, and a Ph.D. from Princeton University. His areas of academic specialty include Romanticism, the Enlightenment, and Puritanism.[1] Damrosch's "The Sor ...more

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