The Powers of Dr. Johnson

Huntington Library
The ‘Blinking Sam’ portrait of Samuel Johnson by Joshua Reynolds, 1775; on view in the exhibition ‘Samuel Johnson: Literary Giant of the 18th Century,’ at the Huntington Library, San Marino, California, through September 21, 2009

Britain is a very changed country; it has changed morally. It might be said that its people’s sense of what life is all about has altered more in the last fifty years than it did in the previous 250, beginning in 1709, when Samuel Johnson was born at Lichfield. Yet one of the things that hasn’t changed is the popularity of the nation’s most popular word: “nice.” When I was growing up, everything worth commenting on could probably be described either as “nice” or, controversially, “not nice.” My mother would invite me downstairs for a “nice cup of tea” before I went off to school to be taught lessons by “that nice teacher of yours.” At the same time, Prime Minister Edward Heath, who had “a nice smile,” was “not being nice to the unions.” Tony Blair seemed “very nice” at first, but he wasn’t very nice to his friend Gordon Brown. “Nice try,” my old headmaster would say if he read this very paragraph, “but your diction could be nicer.”

In his Dictionary of the English Language, Johnson does not yet recognize the power of “nice” as the catch-all term for British near-approval, but he produces one of his little gems in defining the word: “It is often used to express a culpable delicacy.” It may be time to observe that Dr. Johnson, neither by his own definition nor by ours, could ever properly have been described as nice. He lacked culpable delicacy to the exact same degree that he lacked good manners, an easy disposition, a sunny outlook, a helpful quality, an open spirit, a selfless gene, a handsome gait, or a general willingness to put his best foot forward in greeting others. If niceness was the only category known to posterity, we would long since have lost Johnson to the scrofulous regions of inky squalor, for he could be alarmingly rude.

At his height he was pleased to savage everybody who came within goring distance: he put down lords, ladies, friends, and biographers, and would not have hesitated to “talk for victory” in the face of a five-year-old child. His needs were gigantic and gigantically exposed. Like so many authors, but none so much as him, he had no idea how he could sometimes sound to other people, enlarging himself at every turn, propagating his own reputation in such a way as merely to extend, as Johnson admitted himself in one of his own essays, “the fraud by which [such authors] have been themselves deceived.” Johnson’s writing tended toward the promotion of ideals of human conduct that he himself could never attain. But he fails most signally on the lower ground, the ground of niceness, toleration, selflessness, never…

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