Jim Grimsley's Reviews > The Major Works

The Major Works by Samuel Johnson
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I have been slowly making my way through this volume for some time now, and devoted a few days to completing the reading while fall settles the leaves and Thanksgiving approaches. I can't pretend to know the period in which he wrote in any detail, though reading him has been an education in who was prominent at the time. He was clearly one of the masters of the literary scene in the eighteenth century and his opinions range so broadly over writers and literature - framed with such assumption of authority - that it is clear he won his eminence by main strength. The breadth of what he wrote is daunting. One contemplates the compiler of a dictionary with awe. His essay on the dictionary was one of the high points of the volume, as was his essay on Shakespeare, his portrait of Pope, and his account of his travels in Scotland. What kept me reading was his ornate style with his sentences long and flowing as the Nile. He speaks with such an air of authority that one believes his judgments of all his subjects when he speaks of literature. When he speaks of morals, religion, and the way life ought to be conducted, he appears more childlike, prone simply to point toward God and the church and say, because of God I am right in my opinions. In an age where that certainty is no longer universal by any means, his sureties are unconvincing. In the end, this further undercuts his literary criticism, since he includes in it many moral judgments, and bases his assessment of similes, diction, and poetics on foundations which he supposes to be equally enduring. It is tempting to call him quaint, though I think that is more my attempt to shrink him down to size a bit. The few fictions presented here are stifling; Rasselas scarcely offers a hint of life, so busy is it in its purpose of teaching and affirming a moral system. This has been a work of reading for which I have only to say that I achieved it, admired the man's mind, and am likely to read it further only to remind myself of the rhythm of his sentences. The last pages of the book are excerpts from his diary and his letters, in which I could see him human and frail and accessible for the first time.
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November 21, 2020 – Shelved

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