Though my own comments sound uninteresting in comparison to some of the other smart things that were said:

Johnson’s present-day supporters have tried to dissociate him from the convivial, conservative Boswell; to salute him for his feminist streak (he loved the company of smart young women); to spot the roots of blogging in his anonymous and highly controversial parliamentary reports*; to emphasize the Otherness of his poverty, grotesque appearance and fierce independence in a world where ordered aristocratic values still claimed to hold sway; or to put more emphasis on the recognizably modern agonies of self-analysis that Johnson is prey to.

“Johnson knows how to describe human psychology,” says Christopher Vilmar of Salisbury University in Maryland. “In the 18th century, long before Freud, Johnson offers brilliant insights into the nature of depression and sanity. He’s seen as a titanic figure in his time, and yet we know him intensely – we know what he struggled with. To see such a huge, heroic personality overcoming his affliction makes him such an engaging figure, so deeply human.”

Being deeply human in our age, of course, is almost the opposite of what we mean by celebrity – witness the case of Michael Jackson, who like Johnson was strange and wounded but rather than opting for self-exposure chose a perpetual mask, a detachment that only increased his celebrity status. But as much as Johnson’s intellectual and psychological complexity make him interesting and endlessly adaptable for the ages, the more mundane as-told-to chatter that Boswell records seems just as necessary in rounding off the great man.

It’s worth noting that the title of my paper in Oxford was “Johnson blogs politics: links between Swiftian satire, Latin historiography, and print culture in the Debates in the Senate of Magna Lilliputia.”

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