Home  »  Volume X: English THE AGE OF JOHNSON  »  § 32. Effect of Johnson’s death; Mrs. Piozzi’s Anecdotes and Sir John Hawkins’s Life

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

VIII. Johnson and Boswell

§ 32. Effect of Johnson’s death; Mrs. Piozzi’s Anecdotes and Sir John Hawkins’s Life

His death, says Murphy, “kept the public mind in agitation beyond all former example. No literary character ever excited so much attention.” Collections of stories about him had begun to appear in his lifetime, and now his friends competed in serious biography. When Mrs. Piozzi wrote her account, she had heard of nine others already written or in preparation. Her Anecdotes of the late Samuel Johnson (1786) has a place by itself. It preserves much that would have been lost; but its importance lies chiefly in its picture of Johnson’s character, and in its illustration of the qualities by which he was attracted. She writes with amiable pride in the ties that bound him to the hospitality of Streatham, and with an honest effort to rise above their quarrel. If her detractors can find evidence of artfulness, no one can deny the clearness of her vision; and, if, at times, her little vanities prevented her from seeing the true bearing of Johnson’s remarks, she must, at least, be admitted to have been happy in the selection of what she has recorded. There is no work of the same size as her Anecdotes that gives a better portrait of Johnson. In strong contrast is the Life (1787) by Sir John Hawkins. It is the solid book of an “unclubbable” magistrate and antiquary, who has much knowledge and little intuition. He had known Johnson for over forty years and, on many points, is our chief authority. Much of the value of his book lies in the lengthy digressions on contemporary literature. His lack of sympathy made him unsuited for biography; but we are under a debt to him for the facts which he threw together.