cover image Dr. Johnson & Mr. Savage

Dr. Johnson & Mr. Savage

Richard Holmes. Pantheon Books, $23 (260pp) ISBN 978-0-679-43585-3

In this outstanding, eminently readable work of literary scholarship, Holmes (Coleridge: A Life) explores the enigmatic friendship between Samuel Johnson and the poet Richard Savage, whom Johnson memorialized in Lives of the Poets. Synthesizing a wide array of contradictory historical sources, from Johnson's Life of Savage to Boswell's Life of Johnson, the correspondence of Johnson's contemporaries and modern scholarship, Holmes shows that Savage was a notorious and alluring figure when Johnson first arrived in London in 1737. Savage's life was as lurid as a popular novel, recounts Holmes: he claimed to be the illegitimate son of a malevolent Countess, was indicted for killing a man in a tavern brawl but was pardoned by the queen, lived profligately and died in debtor's prison in 1743. According to Holmes, the young Johnson, then an impressionable poet from the provinces, was enchanted by Savage's self-portrait as a persecuted and disenfranchised genius. Holmes enlivens his study with keen insights into the art of biography and evocative glimpses into the professional literary industry of 18th-century London: its oppositional politics, literary journals and Grub Street coffee houses bustling with impoverished writers. (Sept.)