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Alan Jacobs

Man of Sorrows

Samuel Johnson and the power of sympathy.

Three hundred years ago a man was born in England who came to be one of the great masters of English literary culture. Although his doctoral degree was only honorary, once he held it, he was known, consistently and reverently, as Doctor. More comically, but no less reverently, someone called him the Great Cham of Literature—cham, being an old form of khan, was meant to suggest the man ruled over the realm of letters like an oriental despot. This is perhaps fitting for a writer who took it on himself to produce the first truly complete dictionary of the English language. He wrote memorably in almost every literary genre and was astonishingly productive. His pronouncements—on literature, primarily, but also, as the mood struck him, on morals, metaphysics, and female preachers—were oracular, frequent, and faithfully recorded for posterity by his disciples. He was a large and powerful man, with a commanding voice. He "talked for victory," as he put it, arguing fiercely, and he rarely lost. But he was generous and loving toward his friends and wonderfully compassionate to all who suffered. He was, in almost every sense of the word, great.

Three hundred years ago a man was born in England who lived a long but generally unhappy life. He nearly died at birth and survived childhood illnesses with damaged eyesight and—a result of incompetent surgery—a scarred face and body. Because he was poor, he came to Oxford University as a servitor (a student who waited on other students in exchange for a reduction in fees), but, even so, by the end of a year, he was out of money and had to leave school without a degree. He seems to have suffered repeated bouts of depression. He was self-accusing and self-loathing, believing himself to be lazy and unproductive. His many strange tics strongly suggest he had Tourette's syndrome. He married a woman far older than he, to the disgust of her family. He failed as a provincial schoolmaster, thereby losing his wife's ...

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