In Search of Samuel Johnson

Blinking Sam“, Reynolds, circa 1775

I have spent the last few weeks getting to know Samuel Johnson (1709-1794) a little better. One wants to. He’s a riddle: so well known and yet so unknown. Rarely has a literary figure of Johnson’s repute and stature been so little read in the modern era. Am I wrong? Outside of scholars, who reads him? Lovers (like me) of pre-19th century English literature are likely to have read Goldsmith, Richardson, Congreve, Swift, Sterne, Defoe, Milton, Dryden, Pope, Shakespeare, etc. but knowledge of Johnson tends to come solely through the filter of Boswell’s biography. There, naturally, we get “greatest hits”, dollops of his wit and wisdom, an impressive torrent of them. But as to direct exposure to Johnson’s own works, we, at least we Americans, get nil.

The elephant in the room as to cause is that Johnson’s greatest contribution to the language is a work most of us know by repute only. That of course is his famous 1755 Dictionary, compiled over a period of seven years. The casual reader may protest, quite naturally, that that’s not a book, in the sense of fiction, non-fiction, criticism, belles lettres, what have you. “It’s just a reference book, and anyway an obsolete one”, you may think, so why would anyone care? The rejoinder is that Johnson’s Dictionary, which was the standard for many generations, wasn’t merely a reference work. Firstly because Johnson illustrated the use of each word with a great quote from English literature, usually the likes of those I’ve named above. And secondly, because it is not merely dryly factual. Johnson expressed himself through his definitions — indeed, he is often witty, arch, sarcastic, or self-deprecating. One of the most famous examples is his entry for the word “lexicographer”: “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge…” Modern taste runs to bloodless fact. People don’t want the personality of an author to intrude in something like a reference book. And that, reader, is why we are sentenced to live in far less charming times than our ancestors. Johnson’s Dictionary is not just a book that delivers the technical meanings of words. It’s one that rewards desultory browsing. You can enrich your life by simpling thumbing through the pages on a rainy day. Some people do this with dictionaries anyway (I do from time to time, or did, when I used physical dictionaries). But to do so with Johnson’s would be so much richer a cultural experience, because you encounter so much art along the way. Yes, yes, the OED serves the function now. But who can afford their own OED? For that matter who can afford a complete copy of Johnson’s Dictionary? There are many affordable editions which are ABRIDGED, and that’s something. A good gift idea for many people, I think — we should start a trend, because I’ve never even seen these pale expedients on anybody’s shelves. My wife and I have been talking about what we’d do if we won the lotto. One of the first things I thought of is that I’d like to own a complete edition of Johnson’s Dictionary. The good news is that there are digitized facsimiles available online for free, so there’s that. And I just found this terrific resource: thanks to an NEH grant, the University of Central Florida’s Center for Humanities & Digital Research has a searchable version of the entire thing online. This gave my heart a leap. To my mind, THIS is what the internet exists for. Granted, I still would like a hard copy of my own someday, to rummage through, so one can randomly encounter entries, but barring that, here’s one you can make use of, when you want to get Johnson’s take on specific words. The whole thing is there, I heartily encourage exploration.

At least people know that Johnson’s Dictionary exists. Few, I vouchsafe to say, have encountered most of his copious other writing, which fewer have even heard of. So we will acquaint you with some.

Theatre lovers may have bumped up against Johnson from time to time. (Yes, that crude double entendre was entirely intentional. Joe Orton, eat your ears out). In his early adulthood, Johnson was briefly a schoolmaster. One of his (very) few pupils was none other than David Garrick, who became a lifelong friend. Garrick produced and starred in Johnson’s only play Irene (1749, retitled Mahomet and Irene.) The play made money in its original production, but was not produced again until 1999. Johnson’s association with Oliver Goldsmith may be better known. He wrote the prologue to Goldsmith’s play The Good Natur’d Man (1768), and Goldsmith dedicated She Stoops to Conquer (1773) to Johnson. Johnson was also a major proponent of the work of William Shakespeare, and in 1765 he edited and published a major and influential edition of his complete plays, which aspired to be authoritative.

Two of Johnson’s better known works are poems, both based on satires of Juvenal (which Johnson of course read in the original Latin). “London” (1738), inspired by the Third Satire, established his professional reputation. The other “The Vanity of Human Wishes” (1749), is written in imitation of the Tenth Satire, and is still widely anthologized.

In 1759 he wrote a satircal tale in the spirit of Voltaire and Swift, entitled The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia (most folks simply call it Rasselas). As with drama, Johnson didn’t traffic much in fiction.

Johnson’s Lives of the Poets (1779-81) , his last major work, combining both biography and criticism, is perhaps his most interesting and accessible book. As with the Dictionary, Johnson’s own personality, prejudices and predilections shine through his portraits (a model, as I mentioned here, for this very blog). His Lives is not an infallble work, either with respect to facts or to taste, but it’s a lively and interesting read. Johnson’s preferences were often fascinating; he was frequently dismissive of many writers whom the rest of humanity has always considered to be major. (He’s less reverential of Milton, for example, than one might prefer). Sometimes, naturally, jealousy was involved, or perhaps irritation at the overpraise some poets receive. Then, on other occasions, he’s more in accord with the rest of us (as in his love of Pope, and his qualified tolerance for Dryden).

Johnson also wrote a travel book, A Journey to the Westen Islands of Scotland (1775), based on a trip he took with his biographer Boswell (it was the latter’s homeland). Johnson, it needs to be asserted, in case you didn’t know, was a rabid Tory, High Churchman, and all around conservative jingoist, immoderately enthusiastic about Mother Albion. One reason we Americans may be relative strangers to Johnson is due to a mutual animosity. To say that he was unsympathetic to the cause of American Independence is to put it mildly. He wrote much commentary on the issue — one of his essays has the appallingly un-American title of “Taxation No Tyranny”. He thought England had no business colonizing America in the first place, but having done so, the colonists had no business rebelling against the King. (His words of praise regarding his monarch, the awful and insane George III remind me of nothing so much as certain moderm commentators who ought to know better saying nice things about Donald Trump. Worship of Kings is cult-like). Johnson was also deeply, conventionally religious. He worshipped at the Church of England, he wanted no part of the more energetic breakaway factions of Protestantism. But he was quite earnest and active in his belief, and wrote many prayers and other devotional literature.

Lastly, he followed Addison and Steele in putting out his own periodicals. As they had put out The Tatler (1709-11) and The Spectator (1711-1712), Johnson had The Rambler (1750-52) and The Idler (1758-60). Does he sound “all over the place”? He does to me. To my mind, the volume of his output, combined with its heterogeneity of form, may have something to do with the fact that he gave us no deep, lasting works of literature, no Paradise Lost or MacBeth, though he composed no shortage of commentary on both. He was more the critic than the artist, I think, though highly influential in that way.

On top of this, as anyone acquainted with Boswell’s book knows, Johnson was a social butterfly, spending a great deal of time holding court in coffeehouses, clubs and pubs, socializing with the likes of the aforementioned biographer as well as Garrick, Goldsmith, the painter Joshua Reynolds (see above), Edmund Burke, Edward Gibbon, Adam Smith et al. Obviously, such company will make you the opposite of stupid. On the other hand, one writes more deeply in solitude. Johnson was generally greatly depressed when he was alone, though that’s sort of a chicken-or-egg proposition. On the other hand, Boswell’s description of him also indicates that he probably had O.C.D. (he couldn’t enter a door without ensuring that he took a certain amount of steps, starting from a certain distance, among other things). This, may I say, is an inconvient disorder, unless of course, you are doing something like SINGLE-HANDEDLY COMPILING YOUR OWN DICTIONARY, in which case a liking for repetitive monotony might be to your advantage. It was Johnson, too, who advised the young scholar to read for FIVE HOURS A DAY, a level I managed to hit for a while when I was about 19. It hurts the eyes.

On top of the manic depression and the O.C.D., Johnson is thought by some to have had what we now call Tourette’s, with a variety of tics and spasms and mannerisms (and a tendency to blurt out the inappropriate) that new acquaintances initially found alarming. It seems likely that he was on the autism spectrum. Which makes it all the more intriguing that people loved his company. He was clearly brilliant and entertaining to be around. And also convivially fond of his food and drink. As Boswell paints him, we walk away with an image of some kind of combination of Falstaff, Pickwick, Oscar Wilde and Andy Warhol — with far more moralizing and philosophizing than any of them were wont to do, something more in line with, say, Churchill for a modern example? (I don’t intend any blasphemy when I say that Boswell’s Life reminds me of nothing so much as one of the Gospels, less a biography than a first hand account of a great man from one of his own disciples).

Anyone who automatically detests Johnson for being paleolithic in his beliefs probably hasn’t read him or read accounts of him. He was larger than “party”, and inclined to transcend truisms and dogma, where the Good, in the Platonic sense, was concerned. Much about him is transparent — he was slavishly obsequious to the aristocracy as only the middle class can be. At the same time, he thought highly enough of himself to take them to task on those occasions when they offended him (as his correspondence reveals). One of the most interesting things about him is his close relationship with his black (Jamaican) manservant Francis Barber, whom he had sent to school to be educated and was the heir to his entire estate when he died. Not conservative impulses for his time. Johnson opposed slavery and making war against indigenous people. No doubt he held many of the prejudices of his times, but they did not extend to denying people of color their rights of life, liberty or property.

One is astounded to realize that this fascinating, complex historical character has almost never been portrayed on screen by an actor! Robbie Coltrane (a.k.a Hagrid) played Johnson in a half hour 1993 show about his trip to Scotland, and also on Blackadder. And the ubiquitous Timothy West (the father in Gentleman Jack) played him in an hour long adaptation of Boswell’s Life in 1971. And that’s it! But can you imagine Robert Morley in the role? There’s still time for John Cleese or Stephen Fry to take it on! Either one would be great!