Samuel Johnson
Samuel Johnson; drawing by David Levine

In dealing with Samuel Johnson, our need is to bring his writings as close to us as Boswell brought his conversations. There are hundreds of good stories to rivet our attention on the man. Coming home late at night, Johnson would find poor children asleep in doorways or on stalls, and would put pennies into their hands so they might buy themselves breakfast in the morning. Yet when Mrs. Thrale, who had comforted him for sixteen years, decided to remarry (after the death of a greedy, adulterous husband), Johnson could heap abuse on her for picking an Italian musician for her spouse: “If you have abandoned your children and your religion, God forgive your wickedness.” Johnson harbored in his house a small troop of charity cases; he not only denounced American slavery but made a freed black man the residual heir to his estate. Yet he defended a schoolmaster who dragged pupils by the hair, kicked them, and beat them with wooden squares. “No scholar,” said Johnson, “has gone from him either blind or lame, or with any of his limbs or powers injured or impaired.”

How can we let go of such anecdotes to glance at the man’s works—especially when his most celebrated accomplishments include a dictionary, an edition of Shakespeare, and an account of a visit to Scotland? The fact is that part of Johnson’s glory lies here, that he took kinds of literature which in most hands barely deserve to be published, and raised them to the level of independent art. But his special brilliance lies in the relation of that art to truth.

Johnson, unlike Addison and Pope, never enjoyed the unified aesthetic sensibility that we often feel is the mark of a great author. Music, painting, sculpture hardly touched him. When his friend Hawkins produced some prints he had just bought, Johnson asked what sort of pleasure such things could give him. Of music he said, “It excites in my mind no ideas, and hinders me from contemplating my own.” At the same time, literary art did not mean to him the mere teaching of moral truths, because whatever is honestly worth hearing or reading seemed to him capable of moral implication. When he picked quotations to illustrate the definitions in his dictionary, he had no trouble finding texts that exemplified the highest fights of English poetry without weakening the good principles of the reader.

Still he himself could only make poetry out of truth. He loved fiction and fantasy. But if he used them, they had to carry a distinct moral. Luckily, he saw the lie in every lesson, and understood that nothing was less helpful in the midst of sudden experience than an old maxim. As a writer, therefore, he endlessly backs and fills. If he utters a rule, he must warn us not to simplify it. As soon as he invokes a piece of wisdom, he qualifies it with limiting cases. Here, here is the good—he seems to say—but there, there is the chaos that drowns us; and how shall we make the one into a defense against the other? One of the joys of most of his works, and of Boswell’s Life, is that they can be read in passages of three or four paragraphs; one can skip what tires one and pick up the argument where it becomes attractive again, because the Johnsonian intellectual rhythm is always starting afresh, testing propositions by refutations, bringing witnesses forward and cross-examining them.

The problem for all great moralists (as distinct from philosophers and theologians) is not to find wisdom but to put it to work. Johnson hoped, like most teachers, that if one trains men, in simple, predictable situations, to seek the good, to avoid the small vice or deception, they will reach for the right way in the face of large temptations. But he knew too well that the analogy stops short, that morals are not like muscles, and that the large temptations, to headlong lust, avarice, and despair, are precisely those which overwhelm traditional morality. His masterpiece, the Lives of the Poets, is filled with instances of sympathy with men too weak to oppose such seductions.

Like the rest of us Johnson was driven at moments to believe that the determining forces remain outside ourselves. The fascination of his life of Richard Savage is the unmotivated, diabolical malice of Savage’s mother in trying to destroy her own son. This powerful story is worth reading because there is little evidence to show that the lady in question either was Savage’s mother or desired anything worse than to protect herself from the approaches of that amiable extortionist. In loading her with ill-founded accusations, Johnson reveals his sense that evil sometimes takes possession of a soul as the sea claims a castaway.


So also benevolence breaks out in good men, moving them to charity and heroic self-sacrifice with no more strain than the rest of us feel in our daily chores. In his life of Boerhaave, Johnson described not the reality but (I think) an ideal that he himself peculiarly strove to emulate. That Boerhaave really existed as Johnson represented him, most of us would doubt; for we are told that while he was “an admirable example of temperance, fortitude, humility, and devotion,” he also felt the weakness of his human nature too sharply “to ascribe any thing to himself, or to conceive that he could subdue passion, or withstand temptation, by his own natural power,” and yet he had “by daily prayer and meditation” won a mastery over his lower impulses.

It was by believing reality had room for such models that Johnson could drive himself and his readers toward those renunciations which alone enable men to serve one another. On this ground the religious man and the unbeliever can meet; for we are all sustained by our direct acquaintance with the really good—tireless parents, heroic friends, cheerful teachers.

Intellectual leaders like Johnson, who do not undermine the established social order, are scarce commodities in this country today. Among us, the hope survives that a new system of ideas will do what no old system has done; that where churchmen have failed, political reformers may succeed in lightening the essential burdens of human life; that a move from the city to the country can mend our character although three centuries of the opposite flow have damaged it. By this measure Samuel Johnson was no American. Whoever reads his Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland will see how forcibly Johnson acknowledged the power of the state, of ideologies and social institutions, to alter men’s fate. But he will also find Johnson arguing that losses usually accompany gains, and that the happiest improvements will leave untouched the great reservoir of innate antagonisms and voluntary malice.

When Johnson wrote, “How small, of all that human hearts endure,/That part which laws or kings can cause or cure,” he did not reveal an ignorance that would have been mended by the sight of modern political inventions. Nobody familiar with public executions, judicial torture, and the Battle of Culloden had to have his education completed by the age of totalitarianism. What Johnson meant was that whether one lives in Norway or Brazil, the private conscience, in its secluded operations, meets more than enough challenges to its integrity. If Johnson’s Philosophical novel Rasselas (which is today the best introduction to his work) sounds at many points like Voltaire’s Candide—which was published the same year—the reason is that both authors grasped this truth.

Johnson is not extraordinary for being religious or melancholy, or for inclining to support those fragile institutions, domestic and public, that feed on our renunciations. He is extraordinary for having the deepest sympathy with new lines of scientific discovery, with urban civilization and advanced literary taste, and yet doubting the easy answers that imperialist expansion proposed to minds as scrupulous as his own. He loved the study of chemistry (the most rapidly developing science of his lifetime), kept up a laboratory for experiments, and gave Mrs. Thrale an account of the production of hydrogen and its use in balloons. He poured out praise on Thomson’s Seasons and Young’s Night Thoughts; he read romances and novels with avidity, giving encomiums not only to Don Quixote and Robinson Crusoe but also to Clarissa and Evelina.

It is a mistake to assume that because he thought most lives were unhappy he therefore thought they deserved to be so. When a Scottish lady asked him if no man was naturally good, he said, “No, madam, no more than a wolf.” But he also wrote, “The world is not so unjust or unkind as it is peevishly represented, those who deserve well seldom fail to receive from others such services as they can perform”; and when he was an old man, he said that he had found people “more disposed to do one another good than I had conceived.”

No biographer could want a more dramatic subject than the development of this complicated personality; and no expression of Johnson’s character is more dramatic than his talent as a conversationalist. This feature was admired by everyone who met him. Boswell seized on it, brought it into play in his own friendship with Johnson, and recorded it in his masterpiece. Whoever wishes to get a dazzling impression of Johnson in later life, talking to instruct, delight, and defeat his companions, should get the superb one-volume edition of Boswell’s Life (Oxford paperback, edited by Chapman, Tinker, and Fleeman), turn to the date May 16, 1763, and read on, skipping and starting again as the matter holds him. Those who wish to learn about the formation of Johnson’s character should read the lively but meticulous Young Sam Johnson, by James Clifford.


The faults of Boswell are well known to scholars. He makes Johnson too old, conservative, dogmatic, and picturesque; he suppresses fundamental information about Johnson’s sexuality; and he keeps himself too much in the foreground. Sometimes I think Boswell is best classified not as Johnson’s biographer but as the editor of his conversations. Yet with the unfailing help and guidance of Edmond Malone he assembled a wonderfully complete and reliable account of his hero’s career.

John Wain has had the courage to write a new biography of Johnson. It is a noble if disappointing attempt, built on the deepest sympathy with a misunderstood genius. Wain brings out the fortitude of Johnson’s two great struggles, to impose order on his furious emotions and to climb as an author from the nether world of hack journalism to the dignity of a recognized master. Many sections of Wain’s book give wise, excellently written views of important topics: Johnson’s tenderness toward humble people (beggars, cripples, children, outcasts) and his refusal to idealize them; Boswell’s abrasive but fascinating character (“Where ordinary bad taste leaves off, Boswell began”), his relation to Johnson, and his accomplishment as a biographer; Johnson’s psychopathology. Wain pays appreciative attention to Johnson’s literary works, offering a particularly helpful account of the Journey to the Western Islands; and he has tactful insights into the bearing of Johnson’s personal difficulties upon his writing.

Wain tries to situate Johnson inside the large frame of English culture: political parties, social hierarchy, industrialization, conditions of travel, literary fashions. He delivers memorable sentences on central themes: Boswell—“the process of making himself a man involved inhabiting a hall of mirrors”; Johnson’s attitude toward Mrs. Thrale—“To confess his strange cravings to the woman who had become the object of them was in itself a kind of relief.”

Yet a strong infusion of carelessness, pedantry, and obtuseness spoils the book. Mr. Wain often writes badly; he is sometimes fatuous. At no point can one be sure he has got a thing right. Large generalizations and minute facts are equally unreliable. Original research was not required, but simple accuracy in using sources. Through the first third of his book, Wain has wisely followed Clifford, step by step. For the rest he has depended mainly (as everyone must) on the magnificent edition of Boswell’s Life by G. Birkbeck Hill, revised by L.F. Powell. And he has intelligently consulted other authorities. Why then did he have to give a misleading impression of the industrial and imperial nature of the British economy in the eighteenth century, or of the Whig and Tory parties? Why did he repeatedly have to sentimentalize rural and provincial life, sneer at social reform in general, and treat the industrial revolution as essentially deplorable? Why did he misrepresent Johnson’s literary judgment, revive the old, confusing polarity of neoclassic and romantic taste, and assert that the novel as a literary from failed to attract Johnson’s interest?

Wain too often dwells on trifles, gets them wrong, and skimps on large matters. He ostentatiously decides to name all seven backers of the dictionary, then omits one name, and proceeds to give an erroneous report of how the dictionary was compiled. He tells us the exact size of the leaf on which the proposals (1745) for an edition of Shakespeare were printed, but he is wildly mistaken about Johnson’s timetable for completing the edition. He feels he must give the whole forty-word title (incorrectly transcribed) of one of Johnson’s minor works but has scarcely a word to spare for Johnson’s addiction to opium.

Too often, the inaccuracies fix him in serious mininterpretations. To show that Johnson could be strangely matter-of-fact in the midst of the panic caused by his mother’s imminent death, Wain quotes the text of a business letter written during the crisis; but he omits the panicky postscript. Going over a well-known passage in the Journey to the Western Islands, Wain tells how Boswell and Johnson visited an old woman in a hut. He says they “gave her some snuff, to her a more or less unobtainable luxury.” This error suits Wain’s general misconception of economic history; but in fact Boswell wrote, “She asked for snuff. It is her luxury, and she uses a great deal. We had none….” With all its defects, the biography has extraordinary virtues; and a careful revision would raise it above its modern rivals.

Unlike Wain’s book, David Buchanan’s The Treasure of Auchinleck is an elegant piece of original research. Buchanan tells in brilliant detail how the bulk of the so-called Boswell papers found their incredibly tortuous way from houses in Ireland and Scotland to the library of Yale University. Although Buchanan writes with dispassionate lucidity, his story is a series of melodramas that touch on tragedy. For a hero he has Ralph Isham, the American collector who devoted two decades of his life and most of his resources to securing the Boswellian hoard.

Colonel Isham’s determination to keep the papers together seems like the splendid good intention that was to balance the many self-indulgences of his imprudent career. As the higher power that smiles on the knight’s ambition, Buchanan has Lady Talbot de Malahide. Having married one of Boswell’s descendants, her ladyship succeeded, through discretion and patience, in ending the family’s resistance to publication and keeping the treasure moving in Isham’s direction. As the benign magician who transforms a tangle of manuscripts into a row of meticulously edited volumes, there is Frederick Pottle of Yale, one of the great literary scholars of the age. For the achievements of his learning, modesty, imagination, and benevolence, Professor Pottle deserves the gratitude of every laborer in the eighteenth-century vineyard.

As a pair of sinister figures on the other side, Buchanan can present R.W. Chapman and C.C. Abbott, who joined to hide the precious Fettercairn papers from those who had most need of them. The willingness of these silent partners to mislead trustful colleagues in the world of learning will surprise anyone who believes ivory towers are a refuge from depravity. The beaming good will of Colonel Isham, Lady Talbot, and Professor Pottle makes the sort of contrast to Chapman’s and Abbott’s misconduct that properly belongs in a Gothic novel; and Buchanan’s incapacity to swerve from the truth gives his chronicle an impressive undertone of fatefulness.

This Issue

February 20, 1975