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Maner, M. (1983). Samuel Johnson's Lives: Its “Nice Doubtfulness”. Am. Imago, 40(2):145-158.

(1983). American Imago, 40(2):145-158

Samuel Johnson's Lives: Its “Nice Doubtfulness”

Martin Maner

Why, Sir, I think every man whatever has a peculiar style, which may be discovered by nice examination and comparison with others: but a man must write a great deal to make his style obviously discernible.1

An underlying source of power and coherence in many of Johnson's works is his persistently skeptical approach to experience—his apparent “scrupulosity” (which he defined as “minute and nice doubtfulness”).2 In all his writing and speaking, Johnson is a doubter and an arguer to some extent; but one of his special triumphs was to bring to life a new genre, biography, by giving it an engrossingly skeptical and argumentative cast.

Of course, it was not the documentary uncertainties of biography that attracted Johnson to the form; he had little interest in Boswellian adjustments of minute details in literary history. But other kinds of uncertainty, other bases for doubt, attracted and even fascinated him. He welcomed opportunities to address doubtful and problematic questions, for example, whenever they could be resolved by armchair deliberation, by wide experience of human nature, or by wide knowledge of books. In the Lives of the Poets he recorded both the process and the product of his struggle with doubts—ranging from doubts about facts to doubts about the meaning and value of human lives.

Johnson's Lives embodies a style of thinking about people: in their many-leveled movement from doubt to resolution, they display the rhetorical pattern, dialectic; but behind the rhetorical shape lies a style of thinking, and behind that lies a style of character.

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