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E211 JAMES BOSWELL QUESTIONS

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Assigned: The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (Norton Vol. F, 2962-92).

From The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.

1. From 2962-63 ("Plan of the Life), how does Boswell describe and justify his biographical project?

2. From 2963-69 ("Johnson's Early Years, Marriage and London"), Boswell writes about Johnson's years at Oxford and his marriage to the older, widowed Mrs. Porter. How does Boswell use his own insider's perspective to give us a fuller, more accurate understanding of his friend's personality?

3. From 2963-72 ("Johnson's Early Years, Marriage and London"; "The Letter to Chesterfield"), Boswell recounts Johnson's friendship with the rakish poet Richard Savage and his dealings with the insidious Lord Chesterfield. What "Johnsonian" virtues do Boswell's anecdotes and remembrances bring to light? What does Johnson seem to value most in his friends and acquaintances?

4. From 2972-79 ("A Memorable Year"; "Goldsmith, Sundry Opinions, Johnson Meets His King"), Boswell tells us about his own first meeting with Johnson, passes along some of his friend's wit, and recounts Johnson's meeting with King George III. Why do you suppose Johnson treated Boswell so gruffly at their first meeting? What most aptly characterizes Johnson's "wit" and his tact with respect to the King?

5. Regarding 2979 ("Fear of Death"), read the concluding verse paragraph (lines 343-68) of Johnson's poem "The Vanity of Human Wishes" (pg. 2674) and compare that poetic advice to his personal, private remarks to Boswell concerning death. Is there a contradiction here, or can the two attitudes be reconciled?

6. From 2979-87 ("Ossian. Talking for Victory"; "Dinner with Wilkes"), we hear from Boswell how Johnson's bluntness and firm social and political views could generate friction at times. How does Boswell use his knowledge of his friend's cast of mind to get him to dine with the notorious radical John Wilkes? Why does the dinner turn out successful?

7. From 2987-88 ("A Bottom of Good Sense. Bet Flint. Clear Your Mind of Cant"), Boswell provides an instance of Johnson's ongoing "war on cant." What exactly is cant, in Johnson's view? Why does he condemn Boswell's statements about "public affairs"? What is Johnson arguing here -- that people should be blunt to the point of rudeness? Or is there some other point to his remarks?

8. From 2988-92 ("Johnson Prepares for Death"; "Johnson Faces Death"), Boswell describes Johnson's last illness (a paralytic stroke) and his preparation for death. How does Johnson's conduct offer a pattern for others to emulate in terminal illness?

9. Based on what Boswell has told us about Dr. Johnson, do you think you would like him if you knew him personally? Why or why not? What sort of accommodations would a person have to make in order to like a man such as Samuel Johnson?

10. Do you think Boswell is offering us instances and details in the life of his friend to set forth his attitudes and actions as a pattern to be followed, or is Boswell's aim rather to present his friend as an individual of unique qualities that few, if any, could successfully imitate? Explain.

Edition: Greenblatt, Stephen and Carol T. Christ. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 9th. edition. Package 1: Vols. A, B, C. Paperback. Norton: 2012. ISBN-13: 978-0393913002.


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