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The Triumph of Dr. Johnson

Samuel Johnson

by W. Jackson Bate
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 646 pp., $19.95

W. J. Bate has produced a superb biography of Samuel Johnson. His sympathy admits the reader to Johnson’s uneasiest emotions without harm to the hero’s dignity. Even when he discusses sexual intimacies—Johnson’s pathetic relation to a wife who refused to sleep with him, Johnson’s soliciting of caresses from his wife’s nurse-companion—Bate refuses to serve as voyeur or wisecracker, and keeps the narrative sympathetically respectful.

At points the attitude becomes defensive; and one wishes that Bate would place the blame in so many words. An example is the letter that Johnson wrote to the widowed Mrs. Thrale when she planned to marry Gabriel Piozzi, an Italian musician: “If you have abandoned your children and your religion, God forgive your wickedness” (and so forth). It is true that Johnson’s loneliness at this time, his terrible illnesses, and the near approach of death weakened his self-control. But it is also true (as Bate reminds us) that Johnson had quietly tolerated Henry Thrale’s vices and indecent behavior to his wife; nor had Johnson tried to console her for Thrale’s misconduct. Johnson’s own marriage, fifty years earlier, had seemed grotesque and had produced the same division in the bride’s family that Piozzi’s attachment produced in Mrs. Thrale’s. Instead of recognizing the parallel or appreciating the wretched woman’s needs, Johnson suppressed such insights, giving way to language that his more considerate letter, following close afterward, could not redeem.

Yet Bate’s idea of Johnson’s character is subtly coherent. The old and common view of a hearty assertor of hand-me-down morals hardly suited the distasteful facts of Johnson’s private or domestic life. If a man was half-blind, hard of hearing, given to twitches, tics, and compulsive gestures, if he dressed himself like a charity patient and offended listeners by his ruthlessness in conversation, how could one ever accept his moral guidance? It is a token of Johnson’s genius and wisdom that he triumphed over such defects.

Bate, unlike Boswell, does not present Johnson as implanted with the essential nobility that marked his mature character. Instead, he is at pains to trace the evolution of the personality. By meticulous accounts of Johnson’s melancholy he reveals the many forms which the same dark impulses could take as the disappointments of maturity replaced the self-doubt of youth. One realizes that Johnson at thirty was far from the heroic stature of the Rambler, that his emotional and intellectual nature altered under the pressure of terrible strains. Best of all, one realizes that his moral teachings relied not on innate confidence but on continually fresh approaches to frightening challenges. When Johnson gives us counsel, he tells us what is true for common, vulnerable, almost defeated humanity.

So also Bate establishes the links between Johnson’s personality and his literary achievement. From childhood Johnson knew that he possessed the rarest gifts of mind along with crippling faults of personality. He expected great accomplishments of himself, and his ambition took highly competitive forms. Intellectual success came easily, but any recognition he got for it produced few of the personal or social pleasures that ambitious men want, because his appearance and manners were so disagreeable.

By raising hopes that could not be realized, his talent came to seem a dangerous blessing; and he must have hesitated to employ it. Each new opportunity meant a new fear. But Johnson also had an inordinate conscience; and when he fought such crises with indolence, he felt guilty (if not sinful) for burying his genius. To conquer anxiety and forestall remorse, he tried to cut back each aspiration as it appeared. In Johnson’s moral psychology these cycles supported a conscious doctrine, splendidly expressed in his “Vanity of Human Wishes”—the doctrine that all great ambition is self-defeating, that of all despairs the bleakest come from the fulfillment of our wishes.

This attitude strengthened a peculiar mode of writing that Bate calls “satire manqué,” in which Johnson’s impulse to expose pretension was matched by his knowledge that every man’s survival depends on a degree of self-deceit. Again and again Johnson starts out in anger, protest, or ridicule, gives these tendencies range for a while, but then turns on them the reverse energy of compassion or sympathetic humor. As Bate says, Johnson constantly moves back and forth, “between impatience, reductionism, turning a thing upside down…and, on the other hand, openness of empathy, participation, excuse and charity for others.”

A similar analysis can be made of Johnson’s prose style. The emotional rhythm of hope followed by depreciation works like the rhythm of Johnson’s thought, which habitually advances expansively, outward into reality and forward into speculation, but then recoils in an act of self-criticism and limitation. This sort of movement becomes tangible in the thrust of his paragraphs, where clear, bold exposition and illustration are checked by qualification and counterargument. The syntax shows the process, because Johnson’s characteristic sentences turn on themselves. As Bate says, “we see the centrifugal reaching out for further explanation or nuance gradually expanding within the body of the sentence itself, and then, at each step within the sentence, pulled back and incorporated before still further qualification is begun.”

In a far broader way, Johnson’s career as a writer shows a comparable strain between the desire for recognition and the fear of falling below the merits of his own talent. Bate suggests that Johnson would set impossibly high standards for any work to be acknowledged as his own, and that these standards would block his energy, leaving him dangerously inert when trying to create something wholly original. The striking instance is the tragedy of Irene, which Johnson took so long to compose and which satisfies no reader.

At the opposite extreme, when he was inventing the parliamentary “debates”—which pretended to be reports of speeches actually made—Johnson could pour out as much as two thousand words an hour; for he wrote easily when he was anonymous or pseudonymous. The pathetic irony is that these orations were attributed, often with well-deserved praise, to statesmen who saw them only when they appeared in The Gentleman’s Magazine—while the true author, burning with “the fever of renown,” labored in obscurity. Many years afterward, when Johnson was at a dinner party, the other guests began praising an important speech once made by William Pitt. A man who had translated Demosthenes said he had met nothing equal to Pitt’s speech in all the works of the Greek orator. Johnson said, “That speech I wrote in a garret.”

So also unsigned or pseudonymous dedications, prefaces, and introductions—like letters, sermons, and lectures written for other people—gave Johnson no trouble: they lay outside the pale of his self-reproach. One might enlarge on such hints and infer that the very genres of Johnson’s main work reflect an overactive conscience. A free translation of a Latin poem, a dictionary, an edition of Shakespeare, a set of biographical introductions to English poets—in all of these the character and imagination of the author are screened by the primary work on which they operate. So impersonal is the art of lexicography that few people realize how many definitions found in modern dictionaries go back to Johnson.

Rasselas and the periodical essays are independent compositions. But Johnson wrote The Rambler anonymously, in haste, under semiweekly pressure from the printer. Rasselas, also anonymous, he composed even more hastily, to supply money for his dying mother’s expenses.

We might still wonder why he found it easy to write the greatest of all his works, the Lives of the Poets. Bate suggests that Johnson was free to produce it by fits and starts, and that he knew the many long essays he supplied were far more substantial than the brief prefaces expected by the publishers. I also suspect that the nature of the task—compiling, summarizing, and commenting on other people’s work—relieved him of the stress of original composition. As for the long agony he endured while editing Shakespeare, some of that ordeal might have been caused by the pain he quietly suffered from contrasting Shakespeare’s use of his gifts with Johnson’s own; and of course there was the panic he must have felt at being unable to meet the extraordinary standard of scholarship established in his first proposals for the edition.

Most admirers of a biography take its accuracy for granted, because they cannot judge how dependable the information is. If an author sounds confident and provides vivid details of a man’s life, the normal reader is pleased to accept his authority. The longer and more comprehensive a book seems, the stronger the will to believe it. Of course, with some subjects one hardly has an alternative. Apart from kings and supreme geniuses, few persons born before the Renaissance are known to us in any detail; and even among the great—Charlemagne, Shakespeare—the dearth of facts can be breathtaking.

But with Johnson we are in a strong position to estimate the validity of biographical data. Short accounts of his life began to appear when he was in his fifties—often correcting one another. Several of the best-known anecdotes got into print before he died. The story of Pope’s saying that the unknown author of the poem “London” would be “soon déterré” can be found in a biographical dictionary published in 1782. And the flow of research continues strong (if not always clear) two centuries after Johnson’s death.

Whoever looks into Bate’s use of such materials will see that of all the full-length biographies of Johnson this is the most reliable. The intricate, fascinating tale of how Johnson went about editing Shakespeare shows how Bate can clarify and smoothly join elements gathered from widely separated sources. The three paragraphs on the production of Irene illustrate his power of compressing data without distorting them (as a glance at Boswell’s exact but disjointed account will show). Such conciseness and accuracy are the more valuable because, as he goes along, Bate supplies neat surveys of Johnson’s miscellaneous writings, modestly amplifying or correcting earlier accounts. Comparing these surveys with the parallel entries in Boswell’s catalogue of Johnson’s works, one sees how greatly modern scholarship has enlarged Johnson’s oeuvre and how skillfully Bate has brought the details to life.

The same material reminds us that Bate’s subject is a thinker and writer rather than a conversationalist. Although Johnson’s talk and repartee were celebrated in his own lifetime, the habit of reducing his genius to the opinions he threw out when chatting with friends can be traced to Mrs. Thrale (Anecdotes of Samuel Johnson, 1786) and of course to Boswell. Earlier biographers, however thin or misleading, had praised Johnson for his prose, verse, and morality. Boswell’s Life at its best is a magnificent edition of the conversation of Johnson during his last twenty years. Yet a more balanced and detailed impression of Johnson talking will be found in Boswell’s Tour to the Hebrides, which gives us a hundred consecutive days of travel, and scores of dialogues, while the two friends went together around Scotland and the Western Islands.

The effect of these volumes has so overwhelmed criticism that until recently only specialists could appreciate the difference between the aging aphorist immortalized by Boswell and the author of Johnson’s masterpieces. Now Bate has incorporated the findings of the foremost Johnsonians into a comprehensive study that leads us back to the mind and literary art of his hero. A sign of his adequacy for the job is the excellence of his judgment and interpretation of Johnson’s writings. Bate deserves repeated praise for fresh insights.

He sees that the poem “London,” which seems to attack the city, embodies a profound love for it. He remarks that the Parliamentary Debates strengthened Johnson’s characteristic dialectic, in which “a thing is immediately given its due, stabilized with permanence of praise, and then qualified with another position given equal justice.” He shows that in “The Vanity of Human Wishes” the poet traces the wretchedness of human life not to external circumstances but to the “processes of ‘hope and fear, desire and hate’ intercepting each other and making it impossible for the heart to be satisfied if only because its own basic impulses are in conflict.” In a penetrating analysis of Johnson on the “metaphysical” poets, Bate points out that “though he presents what is still the classical charge against the ‘metaphysicals,’ he also provides the basis for the classical defense of them.” Criticism of this high order is a general feature of the book.

Yet one of Bate’s limitations also appears in the literary criticism, and that is his lack of sympathy with the eighteenth century. Bate enjoys pitting Johnson against his literary generation and misses opportunities to link him to his forebears. Discussing the “Preface to Shakespeare,” he contrasts it with Romantic and Victorian criticism but omits to mention its roots in the work of Dryden and Pope. When he deals with topics like tragicomedy and the dramatic unities, he gives a misleading impression of Johnson’s originality. Declaring that Johnson invented literary biography, he forgets (among other things) Orrery’s Swift. So also in a curious lapse of memory he calls Johnson’s discussion of Paradise Lost “the first major critique” of the poem—overlooking Addison’s eighteen essays, which Johnson’s comments partly answered and partly confirmed. When Bate includes a “Romantic” love of “sincerity” among possible sources of Johnson’s distaste for “Lycidas,” I feel uneasy. (Did Swift admire insincerity? In what sense are masterpieces of Romanticism like “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” “Christabel,” and “Don Juan” sincere?) The tendency of such remarks—like the reference to a “growing Romantic idea” (in the years around 1714!) “that man, at bottom, is instinctively good”—is grossly to simplify the age of Johnson and to cut the man off from the air that nourished him.

The dubious allusions to literary history may reflect a biographer’s inevitable wish to add a cubit to his subject’s height, for a tree looks taller on a plain than in a forest. A similar care may account for certain obscurities in Bate’s handling of Johnson’s character. Although we hear a good deal about the relation between Johnson and his parents, we hear almost nothing about the younger brother Nathaniel. Yet as Bate reminds us, Johnson told Mrs. Thrale that he and Nathaniel had been “rivals for the mother’s fondness.” In a study which has to abound in speculation, one might have considered how Johnson’s guilt-ridden competitiveness was linked to rivalry with a brother who certainly complained that Samuel “would scarce ever use me with common civility.”

An instinct for self-punishment was clearly a feature of Johnson’s melancholy. When, as a lad, he finally got to Oxford, he had only a year’s support guaranteed. Surely, he ought to have striven to ingratiate himself, to dazzle the dons, and win some kind of money prize to keep him in the university for the full course. But we have solid evidence that he did not. Johnson himself said, “I thought to fight my way by my literature and my wit; so I disregarded all power and all authority.” Bate makes it clear that Johnson yearned to remain at Oxford but avoids suggesting that the boy’s rebelliousness was masochistic. The example would mean less if Bate did not regularly turn his eyes away from this strain in Johnson’s character.

Another sort of constraint keeps Bate from passing judgment on Johnson’s marriage and allows him barely to mention the part that guilt played in Johnson’s colossal grief after Tetty’s death. Although the failure of the couple to stay together is understandable, given their profound incompatibility, it also recalls Johnson’s attitudes toward his mother—which must have tinged his love for a woman over twenty years his senior. Johnson never went to visit his mother in Lichfield after he moved to London. Yet she lived twenty-two years more.

A couple of years after she died, he returned briefly; and six years later, when his mother’s long-time servant was ill, he hurried back and stayed in Lichfield more than five months, finally parting with the woman in a scene of religious communion that would have been more appropriate between mother and son. Bate does not suggest that this episode throws any light on Johnson’s filial sentiments, or that the difficulties with Tetty might be rooted in Johnson’s mixture of feelings toward the elder Mrs. Johnson.

A subtler kind of protectiveness is the reduction of Johnson’s emotional tangles to stages of development—crises of identity or of middle age. Bate speaks of middle age as if it had the definiteness of adolescence. When he alludes to “all that we know of what it means to enter and pass through middle age,” I am bewildered by my innocence.

Fortunately, these reductions are themselves undermined by Bate’s scrupulous ponderings of Johnson’s panics, depressions, inertias, and hostilities, by acute insights into his religious faith and political principles, by highly original appreciations of his humor. A reader who trusts Bate is not going to end up belittling the complexity of Johnson’s nature.

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