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Life of Johnson

EN 417

Life of Johnson

  • Course ID:EN 417
  • Semesters:1
  • Department:English
  • Teachers:Michael Ortiz

Description and Objectives

“The mind of an age is a tree with at least three blackbirds in it.”–William K. Wimsatt

 We will read Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson (1791) in its entirety and study it as a biography and as a forum for ideas common to 18th century England and how they relate to our own time. Johnson was a large man in almost every sense of the word. The pace of reading, therefore, required to finish a book about his life (1009 pages; over 1200 footnotes) will be demanding. You will do well to keep these points in mind.

  • As a rule of thumb, we will be reading about 15 pages a night for the whole semester. For most readers that will take about 45 minutes. I will not, therefore, attach a calendar schedule to this syllabus because the reading assignments will not vary from day-to-day, regardless of whether we meet or not.
  • Quizzes will be regular: about three times a week.
  • Our study of Johnson will cover the following areas: his life, its moral and psychological and professional challenges, plus his achievements as:
    • a poet
    • a literary critic/editor
    • a stylist
    • a political theorist
    • a lexicographer
    • a moralist
    • a travel writer
    • a friend
    • a Christian
    • a journalist
  • Each class discussion will focus on (but not be limited to) these ten categories. They will guide our discussion of Johnson’s life. There will be in-class essays that will ask you to discuss the work in light of these categories, how they develop, how they shape Johnson’s life and Boswell’s biography.
  • Boswell as a personality and biographer is a fascinating subject. We will therefore try to examine how Boswell tells the tale of Johnson’s life. What kind of persona Boswell develops, and how this personality furthers his biographical aims will be an important line of inquiry throughout the semester.
  • I highly recommend reading this book with a pen or pencil in hand. Unless you mark the text with questions, or for emphasis, the biography will become like a vast stretch of arctic ice, trackless and seemingly unending.


James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson (Oxford)

Course Requirements

We will do about 10-14 in-class essays which will cover the readings and class discussions. Additionally, there will be two four-page papers written outside of class which must use secondary sources on JSTOR.

Successful Students

See above.