“Johnson grown old, Johnson in the fulness of his fame and in the enjoyment of a competent fortune, is better known to us than any other man in history,” wrote Macaulay in 1831. “His vigorous, acute, and ready eloquence, his sarcastic wit, his vehemence, his insolence, his fits of tempestuous rage, his queer inmates, old Mr. Levett and blind Mrs. Williams, the cat Hodge and the negro Frank, all are as familiar to us as the objects by which we have been surrounded from childhood.”
The reason was clear enough, at any rate to Macaulay. James Boswell and Hester Thrale, “the two writers from whom we derive most of our knowledge respecting him,” were both more than thirty years younger than Johnson, who was well into his fifties when he met them. Neither they nor their readers paid much attention to his earlier years or to the writings which had brought him the fullness of fame. “The reputation of those writings, which he probably expected to be immortal, is every day fading,” concluded Macaulay, “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 fame is not what it was. Few of us now would say Johnson is better known to us than any other man in history. Yet in one respect Macaulay has been proved right. The eclipse of the writings by the talk has become almost total. Those who can recall something Johnson said far outnumber those who can recall anything he wrote. And the final irony is that compilers of dictionaries, who in Johnson’s view should be the first to respect the written word, have in his case had to give pride of place to the spoken. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations prints 74 extracts from his writings and 245 of his sayings, mostly from Boswell’s Life of Johnson.
Boswell was introduced to Johnson by Thomas Davies in May 1763. “He is very slovenly in his dress and speaks with a most uncouth voice,” Boswell noted in his diary. “Yet his great knowledge and strength of expression command vast respect and render him very excellent company. He has great humour and is a worthy man. But his dogmatical roughness of manners is disagreeable. I shall mark what I remember of his conversation.” At the time all he marked was Johnson’s retort when Boswell said he came from Scotland but could not help it—“Sir, that, I find, is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help”—but in the Life he recorded a far more devastating retort which came later in the same conversation. Johnson was telling Davies that Garrick might not give Miss Williams a free ticket to his theater if the house was full and Boswell, “eager to take any opening to get into conversation with him,” said he could not think Garrick would grudge Johnson such a trifle. “Sir,” said Johnson with a stern look, “I have known David Garrick longer than you have done and I know no right you have to talk to me on the subject.”
When Hannah More tried to win favor some fifteen years later she too received a stern rebuke. She talked at length about “the pleasure and the instruction she had received from his writings, with the highest encomiums,” and at last Johnson lost patience. “Madam,” he said, “before you flatter a man so grossly to his face, you should consider whether or not your flattery is worth his having.” It was not as rough and disagreeable as what he had said to Boswell about Garrick but it was as typical. Johnson would not tolerate those who told him what they thought he would want to hear or offered opinions with which they thought he would want to agree. This no doubt made him seem sarcastic, vehement, insolent, even tempestuous. Whether it meant that his talk was careless, that he probably thought the memory of it would die with him, is more questionable. In his late years, in the fullness of his fame, he well knew that much of what he said would be taken down by Boswell for the benefit of posterity. We have to assume that the man who wrote in the preface to his Dictionary that “the chief glory of every people arises from its authors” would not have wished to be remembered primarily as a talker, but we do well to remember also that the talking and the writing were more closely interwoven than Macaulay seems to have realized.
This emerges, perhaps a little unexpectedly, in Lawrence Lipking’s book. Having started by saying that he aims to write about Johnson the author rather than Johnson the man, and that this is to be achieved “not by going outside his writings but by going more deeply inside them,” he nevertheless has some harsh things to say about critics who see going inside the text as the only function of criticism. He finds that their arguments “do not hold up against a searching logical or historical analysis” and he tries to see authorship “through Johnson’s eyes.” It soon becomes apparent that this means going outside the writings and into the talk. “A woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hinder legs,” Johnson observed in July 1763, a few weeks after meeting Boswell. “It is not done well, but you are surprized to find it done at all.” Lipking cites the remark while commenting on Johnson’s poem London, one of his earliest published works, which includes the line: “And here a female Atheist talks you dead.” As well as making the connection between the two utterances Lipking suggests that in this respect Johnson’s prejudices were “overdetermined” and that in reality the days he spent debating religion with articulate women “may well have been among the happiest of his life.” Johnson the man and Johnson the author are not easily separated.
We are also told of Lipking’s debt to W. Jackson Bate, whose biography of Johnson, first published in 1975 and now reissued, opens with Pythagoras’ warning against “valuing any part of my experience and rejecting the rest.” This is not a clash of opposites but a meeting of minds. Lipking works from the inside out, from the text to the experience, and Bate works the other way around. Neither doubts the validity of the other’s approach. Both see Johnson as a towering figure, Bate because of the man’s “heroic personal battle,…his precarious but triumphant victory against immense odds” and Lipking because of the author’s continuing relevance to each succeeding generation.
The personal battle began when Johnson was born, “almost dead” as he was later told, in September 1709, the eldest son of an impoverished bookseller in Lichfield in Staffordshire. At the time of his birth his mother was forty and his father was fifty-two. The baby was put out to a wet nurse whose milk carried a tubercular infection which attacked the lymph glands. This infection, together with surgery which failed to alleviate it, left Johnson scarred on the face and neck and with his hearing and eyesight impaired. By the time he was twenty he was convinced he was mentally as well as physically scarred, having inherited from his father what he later called “a vile melancholy.” He consulted Samuel Swynfen, his godfather and at one time the family physician. Swynfen told him that “from the symptoms…described, he could think nothing better of his disorder than that it had a tendency to insanity; and without great care might possibly terminate in the deprivation of his rational faculties.”
Johnson was able to master his physical disabilities. He steadily refused to succumb to self-pity or self-indulgence. However, the fear of a descent into madness remained with him all his life. Boswell seems to have thought it had been conquered and even turned to advantage—“He knows that with that madness he is superior to other men,” he said in 1773—but Hester Thrale knew better. Shortly after first meeting Johnson she and her husband called on him unannounced and found him on his knees before a clergyman, “beseeching God to continue to him the use of his understanding.” Later, writing about Johnson in her journal, she noted that “the Fetters and Padlocks will tell Posterity the Truth.” One padlock remained in her possession and was offered for sale after her death, labeled “Johnson’s padlock, committed to my care in the year 1768.” It has been suggested that the truth posterity would learn was that Johnson was into bondage. Bate thinks otherwise. Fetters and padlocks were for the insane and Johnson was merely making provision for what he feared might be his old age.
Meanwhile the precarious but triumphant victory had been slow in coming. In July 1735, not yet twenty-six and almost penniless, Johnson married Elizabeth Jervis Porter, a widow old enough to be his mother but prepared to put money into setting up a school where, as readers of the Gentleman’s Magazine were assured, “Young Gentlemen are Boarded, and Taught the Greek and Latin Languages, by Samuel Johnson.” The school failed and had to be closed down after little more than a year. Johnson and his wife moved to London together in October 1737 but soon began to live apart, she with a show of respectability in lodging near Cavendish Square and he on the streets or in a succession of squalid garrets. “It was doubtless his own sense of guilt, his refusal to live any longer on her money—so much of which he could tell himself he had already lost,” writes Bate, “that led him to estrange himself, and with something of self-punishment as well as pride, to live deliberately as a kind of adult waif.”
A few pages later Bate suggests that Johnson’s marriage was the first of the two things that “save[d] him from himself” and pulled him back from the brink of despair. The second was his decision to leave his wife on her own while he played the vagabond journalist in order to requite the financial aid she had provided. Sadly the money he gave did not make up for the companionship he was unable to give. By the time he was sufficiently well established to rent a house in Holborn and another in Hampstead, so that he could spend more time with her, she had retreated into a world of her own and spent long hours in a bed which she would not share with him. She died in March 1752 and Johnson’s grief was “of the blackest and deepest kind.” For the rest of his life the anniversary of her death brought renewed feelings of guilt and remorse.
Johnson later confessed that during these early years he wrote “many things which merited no distinction from the trash with which they were consigned to oblivion.” Boswell feared that these writings were “so numerous, so various, and scattered in such a multiplicity of unconnected publications” that nobody would ever be able to compile a complete list. The first person to give Johnson regular employment was Edward Cave, editor of the Gentleman’s Magazine. For nearly four years, from June 1740 to March 1744, Johnson had a hand in reporting parliamentary debates for the magazine. He began by revising reports written by Cave’s regular contributor William Guthrie and then went on to write them himself. Verbatim accounts of speeches were forbidden and so Johnson, who never once listened to debates, simply made them up. “That speech I wrote in a garret in Exeter Street,” he said when he heard a speech by William Pitt singled out for special praise. He later told Boswell that he gave up writing imaginary speeches because he “would not be accessory to the propagation of falsehood.”
Johnson’s Life of Savage, which he published in 1744, propagated falsehood of a rather different kind. Richard Savage, a deluded and self-pitying sponger who in Lipking’s words “had done no one any good,” befriended Johnson during the vagabond years and after his death Johnson transmuted and idealized not only the memory of his friend but also the memory of the life they had shared. “The Life,” Lipking comments, “converts a feckless social outcast into a series of lessons for everyone’s profit. It moralizes every bit of Savage, paying tribute to his humanity less by excusing his actions than by imagining what it must have been like to perform them.” The world that contemporaries called Grub Street, the world of the rootless and impoverished hack writer, became a world of lofty aspirations and of dedication to the ideal of service.
“But these were the dreams,” Johnson later wrote, “of a poet doomed at last to wake a lexicographer.” In his Dictionary of the English Language, which in June 1746 he contracted to compile for a group of booksellers, he defined lexicographer as “a writer of dictionaries, a harmless drudge.” In return for his drudgery he was to receive fifteen hundred guineas, which was to cover the cost of employing assistants and copyists. This was no mere hack but a writer in a position to hire other writers to work under his supervision and draw on his great learning. “In strict commercial terms,” writes Lipking, “learning was all that Johnson had to sell.”
The plan of the dictionary, published in August 1747, was dedicated to the Earl of Chesterfield, a patron of the arts and also, as Secretary of State, one of the three most powerful men in the government. Johnson visited Chesterfield, finding him more knowledgeable than he had expected, but in February 1748, for reasons that had nothing to do with his patronage of the arts, Chesterfield resigned. The resulting cabinet reshuffle left nobody with any literary or artistic interests in high office. It was not that Johnson had backed the wrong horse, just that the only horse worth backing had been withdrawn.
In December 1754, with the dictionary nearing completion, Johnson was presented with a chance to show the public that he intended to be something more than a harmless drudge. Robert Dodsley, the bookseller who had taken the lead in commissioning the work, sought out Chesterfield and asked him to write something commending it now that it was about to appear. Chesterfield was tired and ill but he stirred himself and wrote a couple of pieces which were published in a weekly called The World at the end of November and the beginning of December. Johnson then wrote Chesterfield a letter saying that since in seven years he had not received “one act of assistance, one word of encouragement, or one smile of favour” he was “unwilling that the Publick should consider me as owing that to a Patron, which Providence has enabled me to do for myself.”
Lipking, like most Johnson scholars, sees this as a defining moment in Johnson’s career. He sees the letter as challenging not merely Chesterfield but the whole structure of aristocratic patronage. It laid claim to England’s cultural heritage. Johnson knew what was his right audience and he also knew what was not his right audience: “the beau monde that picks up The World; Lord Chesterfield; Horace Walpole. Such people are too polite, and think themselves the owners and patrons of English.” Henceforth politeness would have to give way to what the polite dismissed as pedantry, what Chesterfield called the “dry crabbed rules of etymology and grammar.” Changes were forcing booksellers to attend not to the whims of courtiers and noblemen but to market forces—changes which Lipking calls “the commodification and commercialization of culture.” Johnson could now afford to defy all that Chesterfield and Walpole stood for and become “the representative Englishman, not so much an author as a man without a master.” The second half of the eighteenth century was later to be seen as the Age of Johnson “in acknowledgment,” Lipking writes, “that he represents, by a sort of popular vote, a large community of writers and readers, if not print culture or the nation itself.”
Nevertheless it has to be remembered that Chesterfield was yesterday’s man. It was evident that he would never hold high office again and it was safe to defy him. The same could not be said of Horace Walpole, Lipking’s other epitome of the beau monde. Walpole, in his own eyes at least, was tomorrow’s man. He saw himself as being at the forefront of the beau monde and he had long chafed under George II’s neglect of literature and the arts. However, when Johnson published his dictionary in April 1755 George II was in his seventy-second year. Tomorrow could not be long delayed. It came in October 1760, when George II died and was succeeded by George III. Walpole wrote to the Earl of Bute, the new King’s tutor and soon to be his first minister, and offered his services. A few months later he presented the King with a copy of his latest book with a preface which said that “the Throne itself is now the altar of the Graces and whoever sacrifices to them becomingly is sure that his offering will be smiled upon by a Prince who is at once the example and patron of accomplishments.”
If George III had considered making a response to this, which he almost certainly did not, it would have been much the same as Johnson’s response to Hannah More. Fortunately for the country the new King was not the sort of man the beau monde took him for. The Earl of Bute talked about Walpole being commissioned to write an official history of the nation’s artistic achievements but nothing came of it. Walpole wrote eagerly in the spring of 1762 saying that he would be delighted to “adorn your Lordship’s administration” but a few months later it was Johnson whose work was recognized by the grant of a government pension of å£300 a year. Bute told him it was “not given you for any thing you are to do, but for what you have done.” In February 1767, while in residence at Buckingham House, George III was told that Johnson was reading in the library there. Instead of requiring Johnson to come to him he went to Johnson. He asked him if he was writing anything. Johnson said he thought he had already done his part as a writer. “I should have thought so too,” said the King, “if you had not written so well.” He then suggested that Johnson should write “a literary biography of this country.” “Johnson indicated his willingness to comply with this,” writes Bate, “and in the Lives of the Poets was to come closer than anyone else to doing so.”
This at last was Macaulay’s Johnson. His fame was assured and James Boswell and Hester Thrale had their pens at the ready. It was four years since Johnson had met Boswell, two years since he had met the Thrales, just over a year since he had published his edition of Shakespeare. The fame and the competent fortune were there but the enjoyment was not. Johnson was often ill and constantly oppressed by fears of insanity. By 1773 he was well enough to go to the Hebrides with Boswell and in 1777 he began work on the Lives of the Poets, published between 1779 and 1781. But the shadows were closing in. In September 1781 the novelist Fanny Burney, whom Johnson greatly admired, found him “very unwell indeed…. He continues his strange discipline—starving, mercury, opium—and though for a time half demolished by its severity, he always, in the end, rises superior both to the disease and the remedy.”
In June 1783 she learned he had had a paralytic stroke. “He rose,” she wrote, “and composed in his own mind a Latin prayer to the Almighty, that whatever the sufferings for which he must prepare himself, it would please Him, through the grace and mediation of our blessed Saviour, to spare his intellects, and let them all fall upon his body. When he had composed this internally he endeavoured to speak it aloud but found his voice was gone.” In due course he recovered his power of speech and there was even talk of his going to Italy, something he had always wanted to do. But it was not to be. When Fanny saw him for the last time, at the end of November 1784, he pressed both her hands in his as he said farewell: “Be not long in coming again,” he said, “for my letting you go now. Remember me in your prayers.” Two weeks later he died.
Bate ends his book by saying that Johnson had touched and changed the lives of all who knew him. “He had given them the most precious of all the gifts one can give another, and that is hope. With all the odds against him, he had proved that it was possible to get through this strange adventure of life, and to do it in a way that is a tribute to human nature.” Lipking ends his with a chapter entitled “The Life to Come.” The epigraph is from Samuel Beckett’s Endgame: “Do you believe in the life to come?” asks Clov. “Mine was always that,” Hamm replies. “The last word on Johnson has yet to be written,” Lipking concludes. “He still has a life to come.”
Of course he has. So have countless other writers whose work has been and will be reexamined and reassessed by each succeeding generation. However, Lipking has his reasons for linking this particular “life to come” with the work of Samuel Beckett. Earlier in his book, speaking of Johnson’s poem The Vanity of Human Wishes, he quotes Beckett as saying that if he followed any tradition it was Johnson’s. By calling his first attempt at a play Human Wishes Beckett made clear which Johnson he was tempted to follow. It was not the hard-worked Johnson of Grub Street, the hack writer who wrote things he later dismissed as trash. Nor was it the equally hard-worked but more scholarly and more authoritative Johnson who catalogued the Harleian Library and compiled a dictionary of the English language and edited the plays of Shakespeare and wrote lives of the English poets. It was the Johnson who wrote The Vanity of Human Wishes.
He wrote it in a few weeks in the autumn of 1748, while he was busy with the dictionary, and it was published in January 1749, the first of his works to have his name on the title page. This was Johnson writing what he wanted to write, not what he had been hired to write. The poem does precisely what its title promises. For Bate it “exposes the slipperiness or emptiness of all the supposed goods through which men and women strive to win happiness” and for Lipking it shows how “humanity leaches out, absorbed by the unfeeling schemes of fate. Again and again, a passage that begins with a human being’s desires and purposes will end with disembodied things or empty signs.” The couplet which Johnson is said to have preferred above all others describes one such ending, the fate which overtook the fleet of the Persian King Xerxes after he had tried in vain to make the wind and the waves do his bidding:
Th’incumbered Oar scarce leaves the dreaded Coast
Through purple Billows and a floating Host.
Who or what encumbered the oar and rendered the ship helpless amid the floating dead? Not the gods, Lipking suggests, not what has sometimes been called nemesis or retribution. Fate is unfeeling, the signs are empty. There is no divine justice, no punishing of the wicked, no rewarding of the virtuous, only what Lipking calls “an eerie dehumanization.”
In his anonymous Rambler essays, which came out twice weekly from March 1750 to March 1752, Johnson once again wrote as he wanted to write. The same is true of essays which appeared in the Adventurer between March 1753 and March 1754. Johnson is said to have dictated these to his friend Richard Bathurst and allowed him to sell them as his own. After that Johnson was busy with other things until he wrote, “in the evenings of one week,” The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia in order to “defray the expense of his mother’s funeral, and pay some little debts she had left.” It was published in April 1759. “If The Vanity of Human Wishes serves as the Prologue to the great decade of moral writing,” says Bate, “Rasselas serves as its Epilogue.”
This suggests that what lies between the prologue and the epilogue is the important part, the ham in the sandwich. Lipking seems to think so, if we are to judge by the amount of space he gives to the Rambler essays. They appear first in his second chapter, where they are described as “a work of initiation, which not only achieves the essential breakthrough but also explains its principles, teaching us how to read it.” Then, having given an account of the published work that preceded these essays, he returns to them and discusses them at length both in his sixth chapter, which is wholly about the Rambler, and in his seventh, which takes in the Rambler and Rasselas and also an earlier work, “The Vision of Theodore, the Hermit of Teneriffe,” which Johnson later said was the best thing he ever wrote.
Lipking begins his analysis of the Rambler essays by quoting what Bate says about Johnson’s own visions and dreams. “He did not need others to puncture his illusions about himself. He could do this on his own without help.” However, he made sure that his readers would need his help in puncturing theirs. “All people are possessed by fantasies, according to Johnson,” Lipking writes, “but writers make fantasies into a living.” In the Rambler Johnson does so by creating “a moral world in which he feels at home” and refusing to leave it. Lipking sees this “self-enclosure” as “a sort of unifying thread, if not a running joke.” Human desires and ambitions are judged according to the standards of this enclosed moral world and are for the most part found wanting. As if to anticipate possible objections Johnson invents “correspondents” whose offers to put him in touch with the real world are politely set aside.
The opening words of Rasselas give the same stern warning:
Ye who listen with credulity to the whispers of fancy, and pursue with eagerness the phantoms of hope; who expect that age will perform the promises of youth, and that the deficiencies of the present day will be supplied by the morrow; attend to the history of Rasselas prince of Abissinia.
Rasselas, fourth son of the Emperor of Abyssinia, lives with his sister and other companions in the Happy Valley, where all is enjoyment and all unpleasantness is excluded. They find this stultifying because there is nothing to be overcome, nothing to be sought, nothing to be achieved. With the help of the philosopher Imlac they escape to the outside world, only to find that there all aspirations are foolish, all achievements transient. They return to Abyssinia, though not to the Happy Valley, and the book ends with a chapter entitled “The Conclusion, in which Nothing is Concluded.” Rasselas is left “on the brink of middle age, still dreaming about a future that he might not live to see.”
Which brings us back to Beckett. Unless Rasselas mends his ways, unless he starts living the present instead of dreaming the future, he will go to the grave knowing, like Hamm, that his life has always been a life to come. Bate is concerned not so much with the answer as with the question, with what Clov means by the life to come. Shortly before his death Johnson told his friend William Adams that he feared he would be one of those who would be damned. When asked what he meant he replied, “passionately and loudly” according to Boswell, “Sent to Hell, Sir, and punished everlastingly.” Adams said he didn’t believe in Hell and Johnson brought the conversation to an abrupt end. “I’ll have no more on’t,” he said. According to Bate, Johnson’s reason for refusing to argue about Hell was the fear that he might be proved wrong, the fear that there was no eternal punishment because there was no eternity, only emptiness and a cessation of being. “The truth is,” writes Bate, “that for Johnson there was a far worse alternative to damnation. It could be expressed by a remark John Wesley once made in a letter to his brother Charles (1766): ‘If I have any fear, it is not of falling into hell, but of falling into nothing.”‘
Bate makes no mention of Beckett or of D.H. Lawrence’s lines about falling out of the hands of the living God being a much more fearful thing than falling into them. Nevertheless both he and Lipking are concerned to show Johnson’s relevance to the twentieth century. Lipking puts it demurely when he says that most modern studies of Johnson “absolve him from the charge of believing in unalterable truth” and rather less demurely when he suggests, in connection with Johnson’s 1760 resolve to “reclaim imagination,” that “very likely he had sexual fantasies in mind.” Such fantasies may have something to do with what Bate calls Johnson’s “secret and colorful sins” and also with the “language of gutters” to which, as Lipking points out, Johnson descends in his 1771 pamphlet on the Falklands crisis: “Johnson seems haunted,” Lipking writes, “by enemies who lurk in the sewers or under the ground and feed on his own sickly fancies.”
In spite of secret sins and sickly fancies both Bate and Lipking believe that Johnson’s inner resources enabled him to transcend Grub Street and produce work that would defy Macaulay and live forever. Others remain unconvinced. The English critic Terry Eagleton, discussing Johnson in 1984 in The Function of Criticism, ignores Bate’s 1975 biography and cites instead an earlier work which dismisses Johnson as a “superlatively good hack.” “Johnson is both grandly generalizing sage and ‘proletarianized’ hack,” Eagleton declares, “and it is the dialectical relation between these incongruous aspects of his work which is most striking.” Eagleton’s Johnson is “glumly aware” that his moralizing is amateurish and ineffectual. He has been stripped of material security and “avenges such ignominy in the sententious authority of his flamboyantly individualist style.” Throughout his “gloomy oeuvre” the real world, life as it is lived, figures only as “irritant and distraction rather than as vitalizing bustle.”
None of this is easy to refute. If Johnson had not been stripped of material security during the great decade of moral writing he might not have had to write Rasselas in the evenings of one week in order to defray his mother’s funeral expenses and pay off her debts. If he had felt no qualms about his flamboyantly individualistic style and his gloomy oeuvre he might not have felt the need first to create and then to dismiss “correspondents” who offered to put him in touch with the vitalizing bustle of the real world. If he had really believed in the idealized Grub Street he had created in his Life of Savage the language of the gutter might not have come back to him so readily when he returned to hack work in the 1770s.
If we are to assess Johnson’s achievement objectively we need to look not only at what he wrote but also at what was written by others less fortunate. William Guthrie, with whom Johnson worked when he first began writing for Edward Cave, was a man of sound scholarship and wide interests. He published translations of Cicero and Quintilian and other learned works, including a history of England which was the first to be based on parliamentary records. He also “reclaimed imagination,” not in moralizing essays but in a novel entitled The Friends: A Sentimental History describing Love as a Virtue as well as a Passion. None of his works brought in enough to free him from dependence on his government pension, å£200 a year since 1745 as opposed to Johnson’s å£300 a year since 1762. Unlike Johnson he knew that his pension was for what he might yet be required to do. In 1764, when the dismissal of Horace Walpole’s lover, General Conway, brought Walpole and others of the beau monde into conflict with George Grenville, the King’s first minister, Grenville made brutally clear to Guthrie what he was required to do.
First he was to write a pamphlet saying that Grenville had been falsely accused of being responsible for the dismissal and that the person who had made the accusations should retract and apologize. Predictably enough Walpole, the person in question, refused to retract his claims about Grenville and published a pamphlet making even wilder accusations. Guthrie, who had been chosen because his accounts of love in The Friends had included homosexual love, then published a second pamphlet suggesting that Walpole’s love for Conway had never been consummated and that Walpole was angry not because of the dismissal but because he was jealous, because he feared that others had succeeded where he had failed. “Who would not conclude, at first blush,” Guthrie wrote, “that attempts had been made on the general’s virtue, and that those in power had assaulted him in a most unnatural manner, or effected his ruin by a debauch?”
Few would suggest that Guthrie was a superlatively good hack but in this instance he was a very effective one. The first pamphlet trailed the bait and the second closed the jaws of the trap not on Walpole, who was no longer of much political importance, but on Conway, whose first reaction was to retire from politics. Even when he changed his mind and returned to active opposition his friends advised him to steer clear of Walpole. Guthrie had done a good job. Johnson had always spoken well of him and continued to do so but it is difficult if not impossible to imagine him doing what Guthrie had done. However great his financial need, however deep his contempt for Walpole and the beau monde, Johnson would never have allowed himself to be used in this way. It is the difference between these two men, far more than the contrived and calculated defiance of Chesterfield, that is a true measure of Johnson’s greatness.
March 18, 1999