Dr. Johnson’s Sex Life

As a multi-tasker extraordinaire, I’ve been catching up on back issues/websites this week, while grading final essays (which are, mercifully, done).  Here is one article that stands out (more tomorrow):

Adam Gopnik’s review of two new Samuel Johnson biographies (one by Peter Martin; the other by Jeffrey Meyers), “A Critic at Large: Man of Fetters: Dr. Johnson and Mrs. Thrale” is a fun read (especially if getting around to reading the actual biographies just ain’t gonna happen).  As an undergraduate, I had a thing for Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson, written by an star-struck 22 year old desperately in need of a father figure—in the 1760s, Johnson was in his 50s and the biography is based on their friendship of 22 years.  Boswell didn’t publish the biography until 1791—it is considered today to represent a key turning point in the history of biography. Instead of a dry recitation of biographical facts, Boswell’s “Life” is full of fun trivia about Johnson, and he maintains a very readable, informal style.  However, Gopnik notes in his review that Boswell didn’t dwell on the details of Johnson’s relationship with Mrs. Thrale, perhaps because of jealousy:

“Still, there was one large topic upon which Boswell cannot be relied. It is Johnson’s relation to Hester Thrale—the woman he lived with, whom he loved, and who wrote the only contemporaneous account that gives a credibly different picture of what the great man was like. Meyers, to his credit, tries to look frankly at the evidence about their peculiar erotic relation. The result is to make Johnson even more of a personality, and less of a pedant; he emerges as a man of passion and pain, given and taken, a professor of desire.”

Perhaps knowing that Dr. Johnson (writer of the influential Dictionary of the English Language, 1755) had an interesting sex life for many years (including a little “s and m” it seems) is irrelevant to understanding his intellectual accomplishments, but let’s be real: we like our smart folks to be human, too.  Maybe Boswell was too jealous (it doesn’t appear that he was delicate) to write about his sex life with Mrs. Thrale, but I’m glad Gopnik and Meyers did. 

Speaking of sex, there have been several articles on the “trend” of  “hooking up”  in the news this year.  It is being debated in the New York Times, the Atlantic Monthly, Salon.com,, and blogs such as Girl With Pen.  I usually have my first year composition students write about new trends, and I was supposed to get a final essay on this one, but that student flaked out at the last moment. Too bad, I was curious to read her 19-year old take on the trend.

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