Criticism & Features

NBCC Reads

In Retrospect: Adam Sisman on W. Jackson Bate’s “Samuel Johnson”

By Adam Sisman


Walter Jackson Bate’s fine book was immediately recognised as the best modern biography of Samuel Johnson when it appeared more than thirty years ago; it has not been superseded since. Perhaps it never will be. Bate’s accomplishment is one to which biographers often aspire but very rarely achieve: to combine the authority of scholarship with both artistry and insight. His narrative of Johnson’s life is compelling and sometimes moving, and one reaches the end of this long book all too quickly. With delicacy and craftsmanship, Bate evokes the wisdom and the humanity of his subject. He succeeds in showing why Johnson still matters more than two hundred years after his death. This is a book that leaves the reader enlightened, refreshed, and perhaps even transformed.



–Adam Sisman is the author of “Boswell's Presumptuous Task,” winner of the 2001 National Book Critics Circle Award for biography. His most recent book is “The Friendship: Wordsworth and Coleridge.”