Lawrence Lipking’s Samuel Johnson is not a conventional birth-to-death biography. It is entirely focused on the writings. “The Life of an Author,” in this sense, is one in which biographical narration aids an understanding of the author’s works, and which “passes over details that do not shed light on the work.” It opens not with Johnson’s birth, but with the famous letter to Chesterfield, written in 1755 when Johnson was in his forties. The great earl, having neglected the struggling lexicographer who looked to him for patronage, was now conferring some preeningly unctuous approval on the author of the completed Dictionary, which was about to appear and which he had not yet seen. Chesterfield hailed Johnson as a commanding linguistic authority, indeed as a “dictator” to whom he surrendered “all my rights and privileges in the English language, as a...


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