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The Powers of Dr. Johnson

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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 setting the world at a distance from himself the better to contemplate it, but rather roughing the world up every time it got too close. He wanted to show his greatness and wanted nobody much to delay him.

Johnson started the habit early, being a font of arrogance and ill-attendance with his tutor when still an undergraduate at Oxford. When the Reverend Jordan, a senior fellow at Pembroke College, confronted Johnson with his absences, the young boor was something less than apologetic: “I answered I had been sliding [skating] in Christ-Church meadow. And this I said with as much nonchalance as I am now talking to you.” His friend Mrs. Thrale noted that “he laughed very heartily at the recollection of his own insolence.”

This early report is given by Peter Martin in a lively new biography, a book well seasoned with good stories, most of which do not seek always to show the Doctor in a better light. (This was a habit of James Boswell’s that has not been adhered to by the biographers coming after him, nor, it might be said, by those immediately preceding him. Sir John Hawkins appears to have rather enjoyed offering the reader a comprehensive tour of the Doctor’s warts.*) Martin is sympathetic to Johnson and equally sympathetic to the truth about him. He has hitherto written excellent biographies of both Bos-well and Edmond Malone—two of the Doctor’s brightest satellites—and he turns to Johnson with a strong and nuanced sense of how he was, as much as anything, the figment of a great many busy pens, not least his own.

Our hero often saw the world, or the world of literature anyhow, as scarcely being worthy of him, but what we see from the new books by Martin, Jeffrey Meyers, and David Nokes is a Johnson constantly in a state of application to the business of authorship. Anyone who cares about that subject, or who perhaps has a continuing experience of its joys and displeasures, will find the three-hundredth-anniversary turn toward Johnson’s brilliance as an author quite welcome, for he has been too long covered in anecdotage and too long unread by the public.

But I am not yet done with his bad character. He left Oxford like a wounded bear, the injury being pride—he lacked the money to continue his studies or gain his degree—and spent time in Birmingham with Edmund Hector, a friend from his school days. Hector spoke of Johnson there being “withdrawn, heedless, or neglectful,” talking to himself in “peevish fits,” a habit of emotional insolvency he carried into his marriage with the famous Tetty. He was very often away from her for many months at a time, subjecting her to woes and neglect, contempt and poverty, while he made a fuss over other women and better minds. At the same time, as a reviewer, he could be nearly psychotic in the scale and brutality of his dispraise, not only calling books and individuals to account but molesting them unawares and pounding them into dust.

The great moralist wanted for nothing as a great reviewer in the Age of Reviews, except for shame of course, arguing in one place against the “elation of malignity” while himself wielding what Martin calls “the club of Hercules” in a one-man Colosseum of hostility, violence, intemperance, and abuse. Besides Alexander Pope, it is hard to think of an author of his period who so enjoyed the terrible spectacle of other people’s dullness, or who invested more anger in his moment to shine. It was an aspect of his daily life commented on by Mrs. Thrale, who, despite all her kindness to him in old age, suffered a barrage of blame and derision:

She protested that helpful as he was with Queeney and later the other children, he was insufferably opinionated in advising her how to bring them up…. At first, she felt it was all worth it because she and her husband saw themselves as saving him; later, she chafed under a “perpetual confinement” that was “terrifying in the first years of our friendship, and irksome in the last.” She insisted that after her husband’s death in 1782, she could scarcely bear his capriciousness and roughness in the house.

Mrs. Thrale had powers both of forgiveness and self-interest, and she was often able to overlook his abuses, but not everybody could. (Even Johnson found it hard to forgive himself.) Boswell’s wife Margaret never loved Johnson—not surprising, given the size of her husband’s admiration—and neither did Lord Auchinleck, the whole of Scotland, Horace Walpole, and half of English society. As Peter Martin reminds us, Walpole went out of his way to avoid Johnson, only finding time to describe him as “an odious and mean character” whose “gross brutality” made Walpole want “to fling a glass of wine in his face.” The failures of niceness were multiple and seemingly endless, but out of that gloom comes a man so brilliant and various, so imaginative and original, that he proves a friend to everyone who cares about the English language and a mentor to everyone who is amused, repelled, or averagely engaged with the problems of human nature.

On the eve of his three-hundredth birthday, Johnson’s glory lives in his multiplicity. He was never one thing. He was Janus-faced but also Janus-souled: investing as much of himself in the opposite of rancor and enmity as he did in rancor and enmity, and sometimes within the same half-hour. It is the main reason why James Bos-well was able to make him the subject of the best biography ever written: the two-minded biographer met his four-minded subject and a form of literary intimacy was born that time has neither breached nor weathered. Let us see it at work. During a coach ride to Twickenham, Boswell noticed how badly Johnson knew his own character, but he could observe that “Johnson’s roughness was only external, and had no participation with his heart.” They proceeded then to have what is essentially a conversation about the vicissitudes of niceness:

JOHNSON: “It is wonderful, Sir, how rare a quality good humour is in life. We meet with very few good-humoured men.” I mentioned four of our friends, none of whom he would allow to be good humoured. [We know from Boswell’s notes that these were Oliver Reynolds, Edmund Burke, Mr. Beauclerk, and Mr. Langton.] One was acrimonious, another was muddy, and to the others he had objections which have escaped me. Then, shaking his head and stretching himself at his ease in the coach, and smiling with much complacency, he turned to me and said, “I look upon myself as a good-humoured fellow.” The epithet “fellow” applied to the great lexicographer, the stately moralist, the masterly critic, as if he had been Sam Johnson, a mere pleasant companion, was highly diverting; and this light notion of himself struck me with wonder. I answered, also smiling, “No, no, Sir; that will not do. You are good-natured, but not good-humoured. You are irascible. You have not patience with folly and absurdity. I believe you would pardon them if there were time to deprecate your vengeance; but punishment follows so quick after sentence that they cannot escape.”

In our age of indifference, it is hard not to be excited by the notion of Johnson’s morally questing spirit. From the uses of memory to dealing with sorrow, he viewed man as an endlessly vexed and vexatious animal, making life up as he went along and subject to the lowest lows as much as the highest highs. We see it in his behavior, we see it in his Dictionary, where vituperation has its place in the very definitions ( Lexicographer : “a harmless drudge”; Pension : “in England it is generally understood to mean pay given to a state hireling for treason to his country”), but we see it most finely in his essays, especially those published in The Rambler.

It is here that the question of Dr. Johnson’s niceness cedes to larger questions about his humanity and his spiritual capaciousness. We see in those essays the tiny brushwork of brilliant self-portraiture; we hear the rhythm of moral seriousness, the sound of contemplation as it engages with the questions of how to live and how to manage in the face of death. But most of all we feel the reach of an author—a writer attempting to reach past self-doubt, poverty, cant, and orthodoxy, in order to assert the power of individual authorship and free thinking in the face of more nebulous authorities. Samuel Johnson may have failed often enough to be personable, but he nevertheless freed subjectivity, as did his biographer, and brought both dignity and self-sufficiency to the writing game, allowing authors to be who they chose to be, unshackled from patronage and the requirement to please great men. We see it in his essays and we see it again in his Lives of the Poets : a writer’s writer, beckoning individual creative power out of the mire of dependency, making the work answerable only to high standards of excellence stringently applied.

  1. *

    A new, corrected, and annotated edition of Hawkins’s The Life of Samuel Johnson LL.D, first published in 1787, and edited by O.M. Brack Jr., was reissued this summer by the University of Georgia Press. This edition is—as Johnson once said of a previous work by Hawkins on Izzak Walton—”very diligently collected, and very elegantly composed. You will…not wish for a better.” Professor Brack deals with the question of Hawkins’s “asperity” toward Johnson in his introduction. “Hawkins had to decide if he was going to write a panegyric on Johnson or produce a life….Hawkins esteemed Johnson, but he esteemed truth more.”

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