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The Powers of Dr. Johnson

ohagan_2-100809.jpg
Granger Collection
James Boswell with the materials for his Life for Samuel Johnson; etching by Thomas Rowlandson, 1786

Johnson professionalized authorship not only for England but for the world, making the individual conscience responsive only to its own capacities and its own engagements. Art may often have had a deadline in Johnson’s cosmos—the cosmos of booksellers and periodicals—but that was, and is, something much less small than the vanity of a Lord Chesterfield. The literary world before Johnson was a dense and forelock-tugging place. Here he is in The Rambler, No. 163, on “The perils of having a patron”:

None of the cruelties exercised by wealth and power upon indigence and dependence is more mischievous in its consequences, or more frequently practised with wanton negligence, than the encouragement of expectations which are never to be gratified, and the elation and depression of the heart by needless vicissitudes of hope and disappointment.

Every man is rich or poor, according to the proportion between his desires and enjoyments; any enlargement of wishes is therefore equally destructive to happiness with the diminution of possession; and he that teaches another to long for what he shall never obtain, is no less an enemy to his quiet, than if he had robbed him of part of his patrimony.

Johnson himself had often been so robbed, and I wish that Peter Martin, the editor of Selected Writings, had chosen to include his fantastically snubbing letter to Lord Chesterfield beside these moral essays, along with the poems “London” and “The Vanity of Human Wishes.” None appear, a pity because these works show us Johnson at his most invigoratingly ethical, committing himself to hardship as he asks writers to depend on the favors of their own talent and nothing else. Lord Chesterfield, the dedicatee of the Dictionary, never lifted a finger to help Johnson during the years of excruciating difficulty it took to complete the volumes. (His government pension came much later.)

As has been well said before now, Johnson took nine years to complete on his own what it took forty French academics fifty-five years to produce in the Dictionnaire de l’Académie francaise. It was an inconceivable labor and whatever toll it took on the Doctor’s niceness, however much it enlarged his capacity for bitterness, he created a literary culture of a new sort by insisting—indeed proving—that it is a nation’s great writers who determine the language. He used Shakespeare, Milton, and Dryden at the head of an army of brilliancy; he sourced and copied over 100,000 examples for the Dictionary to best illustrate the meanings and uses of English words. In doing so he revealed a republic of letters as a rich, voluble, human culture, a summit of what men might do to civilize their days and exalt their common circumstances. The Dictionary indeed is a work of art, encapsulating an almost infinitesimal belief in the magic of poetry and prose. The book reveals nothing less than a living culture represented by marks on paper.

That is why Johnson is important: he is the patron saint of literary faith. And our love of him can only increase when we see, as we do once again in these fresh biographies, what agonies and doubts accompanied his efforts to write well and live better. Johnson’s curmudgeonly nature thankfully makes him no easy subject for saint-makers, but the litany of sufferings he endured is not small, making his achievements appear all the greater for having come from a body so wracked with tics and distempers.

Jeffrey Meyers has written more than a few biographies of writers—Hemingway, Orwell, Robert Frost, Katherine Mansfield, and nearly a dozen others—so I imagine him to be an expert on authorly sufferings both real and imagined. He has a great deal to say about his subject’s unhappiness, but perhaps Meyers pegs it a little too far down from the mental heat of a life’s metaphysical inquiry. What we get is a more salacious Johnson, a randy genius who supplies plenty of evidence to those who would see his obsessions with confinement and severity as expressing a basic, rather prosaic desire to be tied up and whipped. Meyers’s book goes in for this sort of thing with a certain degree of brio; indeed, not since the publication of Kenneth Tynan’s journals have we been treated to such a suggested litany of unjolly spankings. We like to imagine that our famous critics have a strong requirement for some of their own medicine. I think it hardly likely, but there it is.

The modern Johnson will enjoy the modern ruminations. It is all part of the developing art of biography, which Johnson sought to support with great enthusiasm. James Boswell, for all his own avidity at the sport, was too keen to sanitize Johnson’s sexual involvements with a view to preserving his dignity as an unimpeachable moralist. Of course, Boswell’s biography is the greater for being the original one and the one uniquely suited to its subject’s almost baroque multifariousness, but prejudice against Mrs. Thrale certainly steered Boswell away from any accurate examination of her relationship with Johnson.

The saucy Mrs. Desmoulins had a tale to tell about Johnson’s tenderness toward her, and Boswell went after the story in 1783 in company with the painter Mauritius Lowe. To induce the tale, Mr. Lowe pretended to believe that Johnson had no passion. “Nay, Sir,” replied Mrs. Desmoulins, “I tell you no man had stronger, and nobody had an opportunity to know more about that than I had.” Peter Martin has the biographer and the painter rather comically bolt “upright in their chairs” at this news, “craving more revelations.” There was more to come, about various benign fondlings and heads being laid on pillows, but Boswell, who wrote it up over five pages of his journal, decided to leave it out of the biography. It is perhaps in this context that the biographers of today want to bring the matter out, and they do so with various degrees of relish and panache.

David Nokes has a firm understanding of what goes toward the making of a literary life, and his biography of Johnson—to be published in October—is not merely a crisp rendition of the known facts, but a book that shows the man in some new interpretative light. Nokes goes against conventional wisdom in pointing out that Johnson wasn’t necessarily as obnoxious as many have suggested. His evidence is uncommon but no less interesting for that. He quotes from essays our hero wrote at Oxford, early writing that, far from displaying Johnson’s usual disdain, actually possesses what Nokes calls an “open, unguarded quality.” These undergraduate essays, he argues, are “eager, youthful, a little naive, but optimistic. It is a tone, from Johnson, we should not forget.” It is a good and untypical observation, untypical even of Nokes in his own book. Overall there is a melancholy tone to this most recent of the Johnson biographies, a tone that is not unearned, as they say in the movie industry, given the depressive experience of the subject and the darkness visible in everything he wrote.

Perhaps no other writer has been as much augmented as Johnson has by the biographer’s art, yet, along with Shakespeare, there can be few whose real biography is more fruitfully to be plucked from the pages of their own work. Johnson loved biography and he believed that writers should be willing to examine everything about themselves in the attempt to get hold of human nature. The biographers catch the antics of him, the kindness, the melancholy, the indolence, the enjoyments, the opinions, of course, and his monstrousness, too. But what his own writing captures best is the intellectual grace of the man: the moral point coined with the exact weight and density at the right moment, and freshly imprinted with a human face.

Johnson may have become a superstar of his own life—a fiction in his own afterlife—but he was one of those writers whose substance was never far distant from the work that he did. We see in his essays the grandeur of an oppressed spirit in search of a home, never finding it, never knowing great peace, but always suspecting that the journey is common to humanity. Johnson founded a community of belief about the importance of literature—“he kept a school,” said Boswell’s father, “and called it an academy “—which meant deploying the zeal of Christian devotion to praise a lower sort of creator, the author, and to inspire a different sort of congregation, the readers. Like all Christians he made a fetish of the hereafter, but in his best manners Johnson was an angel of the busy earth, a monarch of the secular, thumping up the public highway with a hunger for life and its literary representations.

That is why he always had an answer to the problems of biography, and also why, perhaps, he was so perfectly suited to becoming one of biography’s great problematicals. He had a particular talent for living, which is the element in great people that Boswell taught all future biographers to capture. Here Johnson is—fresh as this morning—writing in The Rambler, No. 60, on the value of biography:

If the biographer writes from personal knowledge, and makes haste to gratify the public curiosity, there is danger lest his interest, his fear, his gratitude, or his tenderness, overpower his fidelity, and tempt him to conceal, if not to invent. There are many who think it an act of piety to hide the faults or failings of their friends, even when they can no longer suffer by their detection; we therefore see whole ranks of characters adorned with uniform panegyric, and not to be known from one another, but by extrinsic and casual circumstances…. If we owe regard to the memory of the dead, there is yet more respect to be paid to knowledge, to virtue, and to truth.

Thus, long before he was the great subject, Johnson puts a name to those problems facing the good biographer. In a long view both tender and admonishing, he sees the pieties of Boswell as well the excitability of Meyers, the protectiveness of Martin, the searchingness of Nokes, asking them—and all of them in between, Hawkins, Wain, Jackson Bate—to pay attention only to the highest standards and the loftiest goals of interest and revelation. “Nothing is too small for such a small thing as man,” he once said, a legend that should be engraved on the heart of every journalist worth his salt and every novelist worth her ribbon.

When we look at the life of Samuel Johnson—and his four-times-longer afterlife—we see a ferocity of living coupled with a moral punctiliousness that left him devastated before the prospect of death. In Joshua Reynolds’s famous portrait of our myopic hero—a portrait usually referred to as “Blinking Sam”—we see a man who seems almost consternated by the moral news that literature can provide. Johnson may appear like a crazed workaholic to us, but in his own eyes he was indolent and depressed, slow and uneven in his commitment. Nowadays, when novelists have an article to write or a class to teach, you can hear their wailing from the Equator to the Arctic Circle, as if the demons of drudgery had tied a chain to their lovely bones. Yet Johnson, while half-blind and aching with the gout, in a cold garret and dressed like a mendicant, formed his nation’s dictionary and an entire multivolume edition of Shakespeare with commentary and notes, while also devoting himself to poetry, plays, hundreds of essays, parliamentary sketches, prayers, prefaces, and multiple biographies. In his own judgment, there was much to be done and too slender means with which to do it, but he believed that only work, only application, could justify the claims of a writer. Johnson would smile at the way modern authors can fret for years over their novellas, those who cup their works like they are small birds being carried through a blizzard, the outside world aiming only to maim their precious cargo.

No one should be measured by Johnson’s yardstick, but his general willingness to ink up and face the world might also serve as a good example to those, writers and readers alike, who see no real distinction between the art of writing and the art of embalming, where a little fluid and a lot of solemnity are used to eke out the appearance of the dead. Johnson had the courage to make his life equal to the task of improving the world that sustained him.

In every line he wrote he is alive, which is perhaps why death presented such a terrific challenge to the balance of his mind. “Bright young spirits,” as Peter Martin brightly calls them, “were good medicine for Johnson.” His liking for a late-night debauch was tied to his liking for younger people with whom he could frolic and laugh, chasing away the melancholy business of having to live alone with his thoughts. Johnson hungered for life in a way that could never have allowed him to face death with anything but refusal. He was only forty-one when he reported, in TheRambler, No. 78, on what he saw as the first and last of subjects. “Milton,” he writes,

has judiciously represented the father of mankind, as seized with horror and astonishment at the sight of death…. For surely, nothing can so much disturb the passions, or perplex the intellects of man, as the disruption of his union with visible nature; a separation from all that has hitherto delighted or engaged him; a change not only of the place, but the manner of his being; an entrance into a state not simply which he knows not, but which perhaps he has not faculties to know…the final sentence, and unalterable allotment.

These new biographies will not provide the last word, and there is still a great deal to fall out over. Indeed, last words are something our biographers have yet to agree on. For David Nokes, Johnson’s last words are not doubted. When a young lady was shown into his chamber, Johnson turned in the bed and said, “GOD bless you my dear.” (This was Boswell’s belief.) Peter Martin relies on the biography by Hawkins, which has Johnson waking in his last seconds to say, ” iam moriturus “—“Now I am about to die.” Jeffrey Meyers gives us both options, but appears to invest more belief in the evidence of Hawkins. It is Nokes who sums up, rather delicately, the deepest ambition of all who have taken the Doctor as their biographical task: “He once declared that it was ‘the biographical part’ of literature that he loved; I trust that, in writing this account, I may not wholly have disappointed that hope.”

What we know for certain is that Dictionary Johnson, the Great Cham, the most singular critic of the Augustan age, was not ready to face death. Boswell, so keen a friend, so choice a writer, could not face describing the hell of drugs and potions and blood-lettings that accompanied Samuel Johnson’s last hours. We hear of them now, but beneath them we might hear something more lasting and more resonant: the sound of Samuel Johnson’s great yearning for life.

Letters

In Spanking Company January 14, 2010

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