A Misunderstood Genius

Samuel Johnson

by John Wain
Viking, 388 pp., $12.50

The Treasure of Auchinleck: The Story of the Boswell Papers

by David Buchanan
McGraw-Hill, 371 pp., $14.95

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…

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