Samuel Johnson
Samuel Johnson; drawing by David Levine

Need we envy Boswell and Mrs. Thrale? Was there in Dr. Johnson’s conversation, his physical presence, even his oddities, some precious essence that is not in the writings he has left behind? Or should we, remembering Boswell’s warning that Johnson often talked for victory and said things he would not have committed to cold print, be glad that in his wide-ranging Works we have the fruit of his meditation and deep wisdom about life?

The question is always coming up; the publication at Yale of the first complete edition of Johnson’s writings since the much more amateurish Oxford collection of 1825 is bound to raise the question of the self-sufficiency of Johnson the author. On the other hand, the ceaseless, unquenchable biographical interest in Johnson and all the members of his circle serves to show that for many readers, perhaps for all readers in certain moods, they are interesting today primarily as people. The noble Yale edition of the Works is matched in thoroughness by the same university’s project of publishing, in their entirety, the terrifyingly copious “private papers” of Boswell. Two separate editions are in progress, one selected and packaged for the general reader, the other primarily intended as source material for scholars. A volume of each series has recently appeared; for the non-specialist, another chunk of Boswell’s journal, covering two years of (even for him) unusual turmoil; for the scholar, a mass of material relating to the Life of Johnson.

Though not a scholar, I found the latter more interesting, partly because after eight volumes of self-revelation I am beginning to tire of Boswell’s interior landscape, and partly because the writing of the Life was much the most important thing Boswell ever did. As a psychological and intellectual case, he is interesting enough; but his claim on our gratitude is that he, more than anyone else, manages to bring us close to Johnson.

In a sense, the dilemma about Johnson—whether to take him as man or writer—begins with Boswell, who was absolutely certain that Johnson was a great writer but at the same time absolutely dependent on personal contact with him. Of course it was Boswell’s nature to expand in the shelter of a stronger character. He was far too acute not to recognize his need for a “host,” and in the present installment of his journal (Boswell in Extremes, 1776-1778) we find him writing (p. 168), “To be with those of whom I stand in awe composes the uneasy tumult of my spirits.” His hero worship arose from a prior need: but why Johnson? Why not one of the great of his own nation, or a romantic man of action like General Paoli?

It is surprising, when one looks into it, how many people have been prepared to go out on one limb or another: Johnson the man or Johnson the writer. George Horne, Bishop of Norwich, was certain in 1789 that “the little stories of his oddities and infirmities in common life will, after a while, be overlooked and forgotten; but his writings will live forever, still more and more studied and admired.” Forty years later, Macaulay was equally certain to the contrary.

The reputation of those writings, which he probably expected to be immortal, is every day fading; 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 debate continues. When the late Raymond Postgate culled his nosegay of conversations from Boswell, he took it for granted that the living Johnson was there, and that the writings had vanished. “His Dictionary has long ago been superseded, his Shakespeare is never consulted, very few people open the files of The Rambler or The Idler, his verse is neglected, Rasselas unread, and it is chiefly students who still turn to his Lives of the Poets.” Mr. Paul Fussell, on the other hand, offers his new book specifically as a study of Johnson the writer, with the biographical element so sternly fenced off that the blurb can call it “the first [book] ever to deal with Dr. Johnson wholly as a writer.”

Postgate, of course, was simply making a mistake in assuming that Johnson’s writings had lost their vitality. Postgate was a lively, well-read man who shouldn’t be judged on this trifling performance, which he published forty years ago and reprinted just before his recent death, with the intention, no doubt, of turning an honest penny. Still, it must have represented his genuine opinion, at least in 1930, and in reflecting on how much he was missing we ought not to neglect the balancing fact that Mr. Fussell’s book is also impoverished through taking too narrow a view.


The inhibiting factor is the either/or. With most writers, we feel that the creating mind and the experiencing man are, indeed, “the same,” but the same in a complex, shifting, unstable fashion, very hard to define. Run-of-the-mill biographical criticism, which simply treats a man’s works as events in his life, on the same level as that of all the other events, is rightly in disfavor; but only fanatical purists would deny that there is some relationship between the man and the work.

Johnson raises this problem in an acute form. His writings are undeniably of great interest on their own, and yet part of the pleasure and illumination we get from them is due to our sense of his immediate presence. When we read Johnson we are directly in touch with him, so that the room seems dominated by his physical bulk and nervous energy. Part of what makes this directness possible, of course, is that Johnson does not use—indeed, distrusts—the more visionary and symbolic modes of writing. There is in him nothing of what Coleridge called the “esemplastic”; when Johnson says something, he says it in his own person or through the flimsiest of masks. So that the failure of Irene is intimately related to the success of the Rambler essays, and the elegy on Levet helps to excuse the impercipience of the attack on Lycidas.

Mr. Fussell, who is a professor of English, gives the impression of having been too much exposed to students who, brought up on a diet of confessional writing and with the word “compassionate” too much in their mouths, regard writing as primarily a means of owning up. He points out that Johnson lived before “the widespread belief that writing is necessarily a self-expressive act verging on confession.” This is so, and yet one cannot deny that Johnson also made every kind of writing, even dictionary-making, “a self-expressive act.” Mr. Fussell, nevertheless, chooses to stress the objective element. His approach to Johnson’s work is made through the doctrine of literary “kinds”; or, as he expresses it in a chapter heading, “The Force of Genre.”

Undoubtedly it is a fruitful approach. Our ancestors based their literary criticism on the belief that “kinds” of writing existed independently of the writer, and corresponded to the objective classifications of botany or geology; they were “discovered, not devised.” Good writing was like filling variously shaped wine-skins with the appropriate wines, and this meant that the writer had to avoid mixing vintages and also make the correct initial choice of which wine for which skin. Mr. Fussell approves of this attitude and sees it as a fault in the modern literary mind that it has wandered so far away from the notion of “kinds.”

I agree with him; but, unfortunately, his application of the idea is slaphappy. He sees the kinds as fixed by pure convention, a mere social agreement. “What constitutes literature? Simply this: the decision of the audience that a piece of writing is ‘literary.’ ” So that “notes to the milkman, theatrical program-notes, the discourses on phonograph-record sleeves,” inter alia, would be “literature” if only people would consent to regard them as such. This is merely paradoxical; explanatory material such as theater and record sleeve notes already belong in a category of applied literature, that of exposition. Notes to the milkman, on the other hand, are interesting only if we are collecting personal detail about the writer—and this Mr. Fussell, with his anti-biographical bias, would not have us do.

With this shaky foundation, his treatment of the genres within Johnsons’s work also totters.

Consider: he worked in tragedy, biography, the periodical essay, the oriental tale, the travel book, the political tract, the critical essay, and the book review; in the oration, the sermon, the letter, the prayer, the dedication, the preface, the legal brief, and the petition to royalty; in the poetic satire, the Horatian ode, the elegy, the theatrical prologue and epilogue, the song, the Anacreontic lyric, the epigram, and the epitaph. He was a master even of the advertisement, the political handbill, and the medical prescription. Few friends who needed anything written were ever turned away, so long as what they wanted was a genre in which Johnson felt comfortable. The only consequential contemporary categories to which he never turned his hand were the novel, stage comedy, the Pindaric Ode, and the pastoral.

This list leaves out two important forms which Johnson practiced, namely translation and parody, in both of which he did important and characteristic work, and it includes “the medical prescription,” whose interest can only be biographical. Johnson, who studied medicine carefully, often diagnosed his own diseases and wrote out his own prescriptions, so that country apothecaries took him for a physician. But this piece of information, which is presumably what leads Mr. Fussell to include “the prescription” among the Johnsonian genres, relates to Johnson the man and hardly at all to Johnson the writer.


This insufficiently sensitive understanding of genre shows up in Mr. Fussell’s treatment of the Lives of the Poets. He sees them as exercises in a complex and interesting mode, the ironic-elegiac, and then neglects some elements, and falsifies others, that do not fit the classification. Irony and elegy must be everywhere. When Johnson transcribes an anonymous account of the scandalous goings-on at Dryden’s funeral even though he does not find it particularly credible, Fussell sees it as evidence of his indifference to the biographer’s dull duty of factual accuracy (so that his real interest must lie elsewhere). When Johnson quotes the resounding Latin epitaphs with which so many of his poets were honored after death, Fussell sees it as “one of Johnson’s methods” of expressing an ironical attitude because the poets concerned were often “minor and temporary.”

In fact, the Lives, taken collectively, make up a work both more relaxed and more forceful than Mr. Fussell realizes. Relaxed, because one of Johnson’s motives was simply to be informative, to preserve scraps of literary history, to illustrate social change, to pass on anything that was likely to interest the reader who agreed with his own opinion that “the chief glory of every people arises from its authors.” Thus he states his motive for quoting an unlikely description of Dryden’s funeral in the next paragraph. True or not, his stating it illustrates the change in manners between Dryden’s time and Johnson’s. So too, the epitaphs are transcribed because, in an age of limited travel, no reader will be able to get round to them all. The long quotations from more or less trashy seventeenth-century pamphlets, the neo-Latin poems given in full, the account of Mr. X’s character contributed by Mr. Y, are all there for the same reason: to add the detail which gives color and solidity.

Forceful, because underlying the work is controversy. Johnson is giving the history of the Augustan phase of English civilization from inside. He accepts its values, appreciates its triumphs, and at the same time understands that it is being undermined and replaced by something else. Hence the narrative element in the Lives. In the early Lives we see the new age struggling into existence: So-and-So “improved our numbers,” Somebody else “polished our diction,” etc.

Then we reach the high noon of Dryden and the silvery moonlight of Pope. Johnson is here supremely felicitous as a critic. It is, as George Watson remarked, “as if Donne had written a treatise on the comedies of Shakespeare, or Andrew Marvell a critique of Paradise Lost.” Johnson’s Plutarchian comparison of Dryden and Pope, in the Life of Pope, is one of the showpieces of English criticism. Mr. Fussell can’t make it either ironic or elegiac, so he leaves it out. Finally, in the later Lives, Johnson is aware of being in the presence of a poetry that is looser, more rambling, more rhapsodic; the Augustan pressure is leaking out. He becomes increasingly suspicious, until finally his anger breaks out in the disproportionately abrasive Life of Gray.

Mr. Fussell misses this because he is not sufficiently aware that Johnson grew up in one epoch and lived on into another. As Macaulay perceived (though his perception extended only to social matters), Johnson in later life was surrounded by people whose assumptions were totally different from his own. The dialectic between Johnson and Boswell gets its vitality from the fact that Boswell is a Rousseau-ite, a Romantic, while Johnson is still a man of the Renaissance. When Mr. Fussell writes that in the Lives

…Johnson is writing a critical interpretation of modern poetry, that is, of “The New Poetry”: in interpreting a new poetry to readers perhaps sighing for the old, his role is not all that different from F. R. Leavis’s in New Bearingsings in English Poetry or Cleanth Brooks’s in Modern Poetry and the Tradition

he has the matter exactly inside out.

This is, in fact, where his lively and interesting book finally collapses. It fails to show us Johnson as a man in a certain historical position, confronted with changes of vision and attitude in literature, in politics, in relationships, and reacting to them from the depth of his nature. The intense historical interest of the work on Shakespeare comes largely from this source; one must assume that Mr. Fussell does not see it, for he mentions that work only in scattered asides. Likewise the Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, also very skimpily treated by Mr. Fussell. Fortunately, in this case, the balance is redressed by the meticulous Yale edition made by Mary Lascelles.

Johnson, in going to the Hebrides, was in search of what Miss Lascelles calls “a fold in the web of time.” He hoped to study a way of life isolated from “progress” by distance, by language, by race, by politics. Behind the generalizing dignity of his style, one senses his perpetual alertness to the particular and the concrete. He is interested, as always, in what life is like at ground level. And though he is unsympathetic to the novel as a form, he brings to the scene before him the eye of Tolstoy or Stendhal.

With new editions of so much of his important work crowding in on us—the Life of Savage from his thirties, the Rambler from his forties, Rasselas written at fifty, the Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland at sixty-five—we have rich opportunities to see these qualities in motion. Of the new editions, the most urgently needed was that of the Rambler, since it was the hardest to come by and had the most dubious text. These three noble volumes, edited by Professors Bate and Strauss, have set that right. I shall probably go on reading the Rambler in the 1825 edition (which the Yale editors dismiss as “wholly unauthoritative”) because the sheer professionalism of the Yale editors has involved them in fly-specking the text with tiny numbers (for explanatory notes), and tiny letters (for textual notes), and I find these distracting when I am trying to absorb some of Johnson’s wisdom. But I shall keep the Yale volumes by me for reference, and they will be well thumbed.

Mr. Bate, in his Introduction, wisely draws back from offering a complete account of the Rambler (“The work cannot be isolated. To take up even one crucial idea in the Rambler leads at once to most of his other works, and, through them, to the entire tradition of Western moral thought”) but he makes a number of interesting points: notably, that Johnson often beings a paper with satiric intention, but, as he becomes more involved with the type of person he is describing, sympathy and tolerance break in and the satire is blunted. “Johnson,” says Mr. Bate, “was unable merely to observe, but had to participate and share; and his own participation sets a bar to satire.”

This is wisely said. And perhaps Mr. Bate would agree that this participation, which gathers both the reader and the subject into the Johnsonian bear hug, also makes it impossible, finally, to separate the man from the work.

This Issue

August 12, 1971