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The Doctor’s Prescription

Samuel Johnson

by W. Jackson Bate
Counterpoint, 646 pp., $25.00 (paper)

Johnson grown old, Johnson in the fulness of his fame and in the enjoyment of a competent fortune, is better known to us than any other man in history,” wrote Macaulay in 1831. “His vigorous, acute, and ready eloquence, his sarcastic wit, his vehemence, his insolence, his fits of tempestuous rage, his queer inmates, old Mr. Levett and blind Mrs. Williams, the cat Hodge and the negro Frank, all are as familiar to us as the objects by which we have been surrounded from childhood.”

The reason was clear enough, at any rate to Macaulay. James Boswell and Hester Thrale, “the two writers from whom we derive most of our knowledge respecting him,” were both more than thirty years younger than Johnson, who was well into his fifties when he met them. Neither they nor their readers paid much attention to his earlier years or to the writings which had brought him the fullness of fame. “The reputation of those writings, which he probably expected to be immortal, is every day fading,” concluded Macaulay, “while those peculiarities of manner and that careless table-talk the memory of which, he probably thought, would die with him, are likely to be remembered as long as the English language is spoken in any quarter of the globe.”

The fame is not what it was. Few of us now would say Johnson is better known to us than any other man in history. Yet in one respect Macaulay has been proved right. The eclipse of the writings by the talk has become almost total. Those who can recall something Johnson said far outnumber those who can recall anything he wrote. And the final irony is that compilers of dictionaries, who in Johnson’s view should be the first to respect the written word, have in his case had to give pride of place to the spoken. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations prints 74 extracts from his writings and 245 of his sayings, mostly from Boswell’s Life of Johnson.

Boswell was introduced to Johnson by Thomas Davies in May 1763. “He is very slovenly in his dress and speaks with a most uncouth voice,” Boswell noted in his diary. “Yet his great knowledge and strength of expression command vast respect and render him very excellent company. He has great humour and is a worthy man. But his dogmatical roughness of manners is disagreeable. I shall mark what I remember of his conversation.” At the time all he marked was Johnson’s retort when Boswell said he came from Scotland but could not help it—“Sir, that, I find, is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help”—but in the Life he recorded a far more devastating retort which came later in the same conversation. Johnson was telling Davies that Garrick might not give Miss Williams a free ticket to his theater if the house was full and Boswell, “eager to take any opening to get into conversation with him,” said he could not think Garrick would grudge Johnson such a trifle. “Sir,” said Johnson with a stern look, “I have known David Garrick longer than you have done and I know no right you have to talk to me on the subject.”

When Hannah More tried to win favor some fifteen years later she too received a stern rebuke. She talked at length about “the pleasure and the instruction she had received from his writings, with the highest encomiums,” and at last Johnson lost patience. “Madam,” he said, “before you flatter a man so grossly to his face, you should consider whether or not your flattery is worth his having.” It was not as rough and disagreeable as what he had said to Boswell about Garrick but it was as typical. Johnson would not tolerate those who told him what they thought he would want to hear or offered opinions with which they thought he would want to agree. This no doubt made him seem sarcastic, vehement, insolent, even tempestuous. Whether it meant that his talk was careless, that he probably thought the memory of it would die with him, is more questionable. In his late years, in the fullness of his fame, he well knew that much of what he said would be taken down by Boswell for the benefit of posterity. We have to assume that the man who wrote in the preface to his Dictionary that “the chief glory of every people arises from its authors” would not have wished to be remembered primarily as a talker, but we do well to remember also that the talking and the writing were more closely interwoven than Macaulay seems to have realized.

This emerges, perhaps a little unexpectedly, in Lawrence Lipking’s book. Having started by saying that he aims to write about Johnson the author rather than Johnson the man, and that this is to be achieved “not by going outside his writings but by going more deeply inside them,” he nevertheless has some harsh things to say about critics who see going inside the text as the only function of criticism. He finds that their arguments “do not hold up against a searching logical or historical analysis” and he tries to see authorship “through Johnson’s eyes.” It soon becomes apparent that this means going outside the writings and into the talk. “A woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hinder legs,” Johnson observed in July 1763, a few weeks after meeting Boswell. “It is not done well, but you are surprized to find it done at all.” Lipking cites the remark while commenting on Johnson’s poem London, one of his earliest published works, which includes the line: “And here a female Atheist talks you dead.” As well as making the connection between the two utterances Lipking suggests that in this respect Johnson’s prejudices were “overdetermined” and that in reality the days he spent debating religion with articulate women “may well have been among the happiest of his life.” Johnson the man and Johnson the author are not easily separated.

We are also told of Lipking’s debt to W. Jackson Bate, whose biography of Johnson, first published in 1975 and now reissued, opens with Pythagoras’ warning against “valuing any part of my experience and rejecting the rest.” This is not a clash of opposites but a meeting of minds. Lipking works from the inside out, from the text to the experience, and Bate works the other way around. Neither doubts the validity of the other’s approach. Both see Johnson as a towering figure, Bate because of the man’s “heroic personal battle,…his precarious but triumphant victory against immense odds” and Lipking because of the author’s continuing relevance to each succeeding generation.

The personal battle began when Johnson was born, “almost dead” as he was later told, in September 1709, the eldest son of an impoverished bookseller in Lichfield in Staffordshire. At the time of his birth his mother was forty and his father was fifty-two. The baby was put out to a wet nurse whose milk carried a tubercular infection which attacked the lymph glands. This infection, together with surgery which failed to alleviate it, left Johnson scarred on the face and neck and with his hearing and eyesight impaired. By the time he was twenty he was convinced he was mentally as well as physically scarred, having inherited from his father what he later called “a vile melancholy.” He consulted Samuel Swynfen, his godfather and at one time the family physician. Swynfen told him that “from the symptoms…described, he could think nothing better of his disorder than that it had a tendency to insanity; and without great care might possibly terminate in the deprivation of his rational faculties.”

Johnson was able to master his physical disabilities. He steadily refused to succumb to self-pity or self-indulgence. However, the fear of a descent into madness remained with him all his life. Boswell seems to have thought it had been conquered and even turned to advantage—“He knows that with that madness he is superior to other men,” he said in 1773—but Hester Thrale knew better. Shortly after first meeting Johnson she and her husband called on him unannounced and found him on his knees before a clergyman, “beseeching God to continue to him the use of his understanding.” Later, writing about Johnson in her journal, she noted that “the Fetters and Padlocks will tell Posterity the Truth.” One padlock remained in her possession and was offered for sale after her death, labeled “Johnson’s padlock, committed to my care in the year 1768.” It has been suggested that the truth posterity would learn was that Johnson was into bondage. Bate thinks otherwise. Fetters and padlocks were for the insane and Johnson was merely making provision for what he feared might be his old age.

Meanwhile the precarious but triumphant victory had been slow in coming. In July 1735, not yet twenty-six and almost penniless, Johnson married Elizabeth Jervis Porter, a widow old enough to be his mother but prepared to put money into setting up a school where, as readers of the Gentleman’s Magazine were assured, “Young Gentlemen are Boarded, and Taught the Greek and Latin Languages, by Samuel Johnson.” The school failed and had to be closed down after little more than a year. Johnson and his wife moved to London together in October 1737 but soon began to live apart, she with a show of respectability in lodging near Cavendish Square and he on the streets or in a succession of squalid garrets. “It was doubtless his own sense of guilt, his refusal to live any longer on her money—so much of which he could tell himself he had already lost,” writes Bate, “that led him to estrange himself, and with something of self-punishment as well as pride, to live deliberately as a kind of adult waif.”

A few pages later Bate suggests that Johnson’s marriage was the first of the two things that “save[d] him from himself” and pulled him back from the brink of despair. The second was his decision to leave his wife on her own while he played the vagabond journalist in order to requite the financial aid she had provided. Sadly the money he gave did not make up for the companionship he was unable to give. By the time he was sufficiently well established to rent a house in Holborn and another in Hampstead, so that he could spend more time with her, she had retreated into a world of her own and spent long hours in a bed which she would not share with him. She died in March 1752 and Johnson’s grief was “of the blackest and deepest kind.” For the rest of his life the anniversary of her death brought renewed feelings of guilt and remorse.

Johnson later confessed that during these early years he wrote “many things which merited no distinction from the trash with which they were consigned to oblivion.” Boswell feared that these writings were “so numerous, so various, and scattered in such a multiplicity of unconnected publications” that nobody would ever be able to compile a complete list. The first person to give Johnson regular employment was Edward Cave, editor of the Gentleman’s Magazine. For nearly four years, from June 1740 to March 1744, Johnson had a hand in reporting parliamentary debates for the magazine. He began by revising reports written by Cave’s regular contributor William Guthrie and then went on to write them himself. Verbatim accounts of speeches were forbidden and so Johnson, who never once listened to debates, simply made them up. “That speech I wrote in a garret in Exeter Street,” he said when he heard a speech by William Pitt singled out for special praise. He later told Boswell that he gave up writing imaginary speeches because he “would not be accessory to the propagation of falsehood.”

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