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Reviews

Wallow in the Mire

One of the less appreciated perils of literary fame is the risk a writer runs every hundred years as the anniversary of his birthday approaches.  This year marks the 200th birthday not only of Darwin but of Lincoln, a completely irrelevant coincidence that inspired Smithsonian—the trivializing newsletter of “the nation’s attic”—to celebrate the two men in the same issue.  It turns out that Darwin and Lincoln were both featherless bipeds who had a lot of influence on the modern world.  But then what else should we expect from the most consistently error-ridden propaganda sheet published in the United States?

Two thousand nine is also the 300th anniversary of Samuel Johnson’s birth, and, although academic libraries are stuffed with popular biographies and learned monographs on the “Great Cham,” poor Johnson’s ghost must be trembling with impatience as the presses churn out new volumes.  The trouble for every would-be biographer of Johnson is the unpleasant fact that he was the subject of the first major literary biography ever published, James Boswell’sLife of Johnson, but even in his own day Boswell had to face competition from two people who had known Johnson before the young Scottish scapegrace had ever struck up an acquaintance with the great man: Hester Thrale (later Mrs. Piozzi) and Sir John Hawkins.  Since Boswell’s time the books and articles...

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