Our Debt to Dr Johnson
On the tercentenary of the famous London writer’s birth, Peter Martin celebrates the legacy of a man admired for his insight and humanity, qualities forged in the darker and less well analysed episodes of his life.
Samuel Johnson (1709-84) is, after Shakespeare, the most frequently quoted figure in England's literary history. It seems as if scarcely a day passes without his being cited in travel brochures, London guidebooks, sports articles, philosophical tracts, sermons, newspaper reports and advertisements. A leading British prize for non-fiction bears Johnson's name. The 2005 50p coin displays his image as the author of the first comprehensive dictionary of English (1755) and in August 2007 he was the target of a hammer attack at the National Portrait Gallery when a man, apparently furious over the plight of the English language and somehow blaming Johnson for it, smashed through the glass and seriously damaged the canvas of Sir Joshua Reynolds's portrait of him, known as 'Dictionary Johnson'.
John Ruskin wrote that he 'at once and for ever recognised in him a man entirely sincere, and infallibly wise in the view and estimate he gave of the common questions, business and ways of the world'. For the Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges, a rabid Anglophile for whom Johnson was a literary hero, he was more English than Shakespeare. The Irish playwright Samuel Beckett, who planned but never completed a play based on Johnson, to be titled Human Wishes, declared that 'it's Johnson, always Johnson, who is with me. And if I follow any tradition, it is his.' In accepting the Nobel Prize for Poetry in 1955, Seamus Heany acknowledged the durable appeal of Johnson's essays in the Rambler (1750-52): ‘The mind still longs to repose in what Samuel Johnson once called with superb confidence “the stability of truth”.’ And Harold Bloom, one of the world’s greatest modern critics, announced, ‘I worship Johnson,’ calling him his critical hero:
Johnson deserves all the indulgences that can be granted, because he was greatly good as well as great-hearted. A more humane critic has never existed, nor one who demonstrates quite so well the true value of the highest literature for life.
In America his writings have always been admired, even in the first decades of the new nation when, notwithstanding his angry and scathing denunciations of Americans and their clamour for independence – his incendiary pamphlet Taxation No Tyranny (1775) accused Americans of hypocrisy and ingratitude, he remained one of the three or four most popular writers among common readers.
But what was Johnson like? He is the subject, of course, of James Boswell's monumental book, The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791), which many people still think is the greatest biography in the language and to which we are indebted for the preservation of most of Johnson's surviving conversation. It determined his reputation over the next 150 years as the clubbable and convivial Sam Johnson, the pugnacious conversationalist, the epitome of the rationalist in an age of rationalism, the sage of the Enlightenment and a personality with an inexhaustible capacity for friendship and a rich fund of humour. Boswell also correctly portrays him as the astonishing literary polymath and colossus - journalist, poet, lexicographer, historian, biographer, travel writer, essayist and author of sermons and numerous other forms of prose. But he left out much of the psychological and emotional complexity of Johnson and, although he introduces most of Johnson's major writings, he scarcely discusses them. This is a profound omission, for the best way to get to the 'heart' of Johnson is through his writings, not through his recorded conversation.
For a start, Boswell largely ignores the Johnson who we may regard as 'modern': his support of women writers, life-long hatred of slavery and pioneering efforts to abolish it and loathing for colonialism and expansionist imperialism. We hear little of Johnson's near-poverty - he once briefly experienced imprisonment for debt and on another occasion had to be rescued from a sponging-house where he was temporarily held for debt - and the long, lean years in Grub Street hacking out an existence as an anonymous author. It was during those relatively obscure years, however, that he forged his lifelong concern for the poor, underprivileged, insane and outcast that defined his humanitarianism and charity, as well as his consternation and angry impatience with facile and fashionable talk about poverty and misfortune. There is little in Boswell about Johnson's deeply religious nature and relentless fear of death. Most important, though he mentions it, Boswel does not chronicle and examine Johnson's profound trials with melancholia ('the black dog', inherited from his father) and fears of madness, his perilous mental balance between triumph and despair. Although Johnson rarely spoke of it, this gloom haunted him his entire life and in at least two periods of several years each brought on severe mental crises. His horror of ultimate annihilation lay at the root of much of this. As Beckett, who regarded him as essentially a tragic figure, put it in a letter to a friend, Johnson would have preferred an eternity of torment to that.
It was, in fact during one of these crises in the 1760s that he was 'rescued' by Hester Thrale and her husband, who whisked him off to their country home in Streatham and nursed him there physically and mentally. Thus began Johnson's intimate and sexually mysterious relationship with Mrs Thrale for almost 20 years until she devastated him some two years before his death by marrying her children’s music master. Boswell wrote nothing of that either.
Johnson’s youth and early career of mental suffering, relative indigence and vast reading, during which he was also thwarted professionally – he could never get employment teaching because of his lack of academic credentials and involuntary physical tics and gesticulations (probably symptoms of Tourette’s syndrome) – convinced him of the ultimate absurdity and vanity of the human condition. It endowed him with remarkable wisdom and penetrating insight. He might well have followed Jonathan Swift and become a savage critic of mankind, but it was as a moralist, not satirist, that he would eventually decide to dedicate himself in his writing, although at the centre of his work would remain a streak of anger and impatience, the rebel and radical, to which he would add the rigorousness of an ironic commentator on vanities.
For this we can be endlessly grateful because his more than 400 essays in the Rambler, Idler and Adventurer – psychological, literary, political, social, ethical, and religious – encourage us to take a good hard look at ourselves, to think who we are, how we are responding to the world around us, how we have arrived where we are and where we are heading. They make him one of the greatest moralists in the literature of English-speaking nations.
With its persistent and aggressive demands for our attention from the blogosphere to the media to the bookshops, there is much about our age that appears to have urgent need of what Johnson has to say in his essays. The world distracts us endlessly with stimuli, making it easy to focus on its allurements and forget Johnson’s admonitions to look within. From the Enlightenment era to the present day, his writings have taken their place as an iconic part of national cultures and private lives. As the critic Walter Jackson Bate put it:
Time and again, in whatever direction we go, we meet Johnson returning on the way back.
Peter Martin is the author of Samuel Johnson: A Biography (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2008) and his edition of Johnson’s essays was published by Harvard University Press in September 2009.
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