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Arts and Letters

Saint Samuel of Fleet Street

Samuel Johnson Among the Modernists

ed. Anthony W. Lee
Clemson University Press, pp. 304, $130


In September 1884 the mayor of Lichfield, in the English Midlands, had a brainwave. That December it would be a hundred years since the death of Samuel Johnson, the town’s most famous son. Why not hold a proper commemoration, a sort of Johnson festival? The mayor’s appeal for a public response gained wide coverage, so it came as some disappointment when a mere thirty-one letters trickled in, six from tradesmen hoping for contract work, and two actively opposing the whole idea. The celebration was called off, prompting a grandiose editorial in the Times. Nobody could be surprised, the paper sniffed, at the muted response to Johnson’s centenary. His works—the philosophical novel Rasselas, the essays and poems, the Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets—found few readers these days. His monumental Dictionary of the English Language “shows that he was no etymologist.” Johnson’s contemporaries appeared to have thought highly of him, but “the infatuated admiration which he inspired ... is not wholly comprehensible to this generation.” 

Such a verdict would not have surprised Lord Macaulay, who in 1831 announced that Johnson’s stock was sinking fast. “The reputation of those writings, which he probably expected to be immortal, is every day fading,” Macaulay asserted. Johnson’s literary judgments, for instance, “were, in his own time, regarded with superstitious veneration, and, in our time, are generally treated with indiscriminate contempt.” The nineteenth century, it seemed, had tired of Johnson. In chapter one of Vanity Fair, Becky Sharp symbolically rejects her deathly-dull education by chucking the Dictionary out of her carriage window. Something about Johnson seemed to inspire violent repudiation, especially among poets. William Cowper wanted to “thrash his old jacket till his pension jingled in his pocket.” Keats scribbled abuse in the margins next to Johnson’s Shakespeare criticism. Coleridge said he couldn’t mention the man’s name without losing his temper.

The case against Johnson is easy to make. Politically, he can look like a reactionary caricature, insisting on social hierarchy (“subordination”), hymning the benefits of commerce, and mocking aspirations to liberty and democracy. His most confidently delivered judgments could be miles wide of the mark, as when he explained that Tristram Shandy would be rapidly forgotten because it was too “odd”—the very quality which has endeared it to so many readers. He specialized in all the genres which nobody likes any more: the moral disquisition, the rhyming couplet, the detailed lit-crit essay; and his style is, at first sight, so formal and Latinate as to seem impenetrable. The Rambler, the essay series he wrote from 1750 to 1752, is sometimes referred to as a newspaper column, but in fact Johnson was proud that he had avoided politics, gossip, reference to current cultural trends, or any of the usual ways of actually gaining the reader’s attention. “In my papers,” he bragged in the final edition, “no man could look for censures of his enemies, or praises of himself; and they only were expected to peruse them, whose passions left them leisure for abstracted truth.” Good luck with that. 

Johnson’s conversation—recor­ded in extraordinary detail by his friends James Boswell and Hester Thrale—is more entertaining, but often for dubious reasons. “I am willing to love all mankind, except an American.” “Sir, I perceive you are a vile Whig.” When asked by Mrs Thrale whether he agreed that the peas she had just served him were delicious: “Perhaps they would be so—to a pig.” Can this really be the same man who has been repeatedly acclaimed as a great sage, the closest thing the English-speaking peoples have produced to a Confucius or a Socrates?

Yet however persuasively his reputation is attacked, for generation after generation of readers Johnson remains valued. In his lifetime, he argued that it was better for a writer to be attacked than ignored, just as a besieged town stands a better chance of defeating an assault on its walls than of surviving a slow starvation. The two hundred thirty-seven years since his death have borne out the theory. As this new collection details, the nineteenth-century disparagement of Johnson was followed by a revival among the Modernists. Borges and Nabokov loved Johnson; Virginia Woolf was only half-joking when she referred to “Saint Samuel of Fleet Street.” T. S. Eliot obviously venerated him, but other members of the fan club were less predictable. “It’s Johnson, always Johnson, who is with me,” Samuel Beckett declared, “and if I follow any tradition, it’s his.”

Beckett’s nihilist absurdism may look a long way from Johnson, a devout Anglican who believed that reason was our highest faculty because we share it with the angels. But both were keen students of human suffering and weakness—Beckett was fascinated by Johnson’s remark that “I was born almost dead, and could not cry for some time,” and by his subsequent struggles with physical and mental illness. “There are fifty plays in his life,” Beckett believed; he tried to write one (though he never finished it) called Human Wishes. The reference is to Johnson’s poem The Vanity of Human Wishes, a melancholy essay on the unfairness of the universe. One passage, about the disappointments of the writer’s life, made Johnson cry when he recited it.

Deign on the passing world to turn thine eyes,
And pause awhile from letters, to be wise;
There mark what ills the scholar’s life assail,
Toil, envy, want, the garret, and the jail.

Johnson knew what he was talking about: having moved to London and attempted to be a kind of scholarly journalist, he found himself submerged in loathsome hackwork, reporting, translating, and editing nonstop for the Gentleman’s Magazine. Yet from this experience he drew a humane conclusion. Journalism might not be especially exalted, but it could still do some good by providing the reader with some harmless pleasure or sensible advice. “The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it.”

Literature is for helping readers to live their everyday lives: that belief put Johnson on a collision course with the Romantics, who had other priorities. Here’s an exemplary late-Romantic, E. E. Cummings: “A poet is somebody who feels, and who expresses his feelings through words. . . . A lot of people think or believe or know they feel—but that’s thinking or believing or knowing; not feeling.” For Johnson, this kind of approach was no good for readers, reduced to second-class citizens asked to be impressed by the poet’s refined emotions; and even worse for writers, who were already vain enough without making their art into a mirror of personality. 

The Modernists had also seen where Romanticism might end up. As Eliot put it, many twentieth-century readers wanted poetry to be “a metamorphosis of their own feeble desires and lusts, or what they believe to be ‘intensity’ of passion.” Johnson, by contrast, was a poet because of his exactness of meaning: “the certainty, the ease with which he hits the bull’s-eye every time.” Virginia Woolf paid Johnson a similar compliment: “His prose . . . alights with all its feet together for the most part and exactly upon its meaning.” For twentieth-century writers, especially at the experimental end, Johnson showed how one could anchor one’s own perceptions in recognizable experience.

If there is one genre where Johnson stands in the first rank of writers, it is the aphorism. “A decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization.” “To let friendship die away by negligence and silence . . . is voluntarily to throw away one of the greatest comforts of this weary pilgrimage.” “Almost all absurdity of conduct arises from the imitation of those whom we cannot resemble.” “Our brightest blazes of gladness are commonly kindled by unexpected sparks.” And so on: the Samuel Johnson Soundbite Page online collects nearly two thousand of the finest. 

In Rasselas, the title character, a young prince, returns from a party feeling sorry for himself. Everybody else seems to have the knack of enjoying life, Rasselas complains to his wise old traveling-companion Imlac, but he feels he is only playing along, pretending to be happy. Imlac’s response goes to the heart of Johnson’s literary method: “Every man may, by examining his own mind, guess what passes in the minds of others.” Probably everyone else at the party was trying to get away from themselves too. There is such a thing as universal humanity, and you can discover it between your own ears. 

Believing in a common human nature, Johnson considered others’ sufferings as his responsibility. He raised his voice against unjust war, debtors’ prisons, the callous application of the death penalty, and the indifference which led to poverty and prostitution on the streets of London, while devoting much of his time and energy to the works of mercy. He used his influence to gain work for struggling authors; his money disappeared into the shoes of sleeping beggar-children; on one characteristic occasion, he literally picked up an unconscious young woman from the street, carried her on his back, and found her a place to stay and a job.

And of course he grasped the evil of slavery earlier than most. “How is it,” he asked of the American colonists, “that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” Clement Hawes, in the best essay here, quotes Conrad’s “The horror! The horror!”, the deathbed cry of the colonial explorer Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, as a judgment on the religion of “progress” that starts with congratulating yourself on being enlightened and ends up with exploitation, enslavement, and mass murder. Johnson, for Hawes, is one of the very first to call the Enlightenment’s bluff. Not only did he remind the reader, at every turn, that human progress was drastically limited by the Fall, he was also an early adopter of anti-imperialist rhetoric. Centuries before anyone talked about decentering the white gaze, Johnson imagined a Native American chief watching the Franco-British wars with equanimity: “Let us look unconcerned upon the slaughter, and remember that the death of every European delivers the country from a tyrant and a robber.” At around the same time, David Hume could be heard explaining that all other races were “naturally inferior to the whites” and Kant was discovering humanity’s “greatest perfection in the white race.” 

Samuel Johnson Among the Modernists has its moments, but for the most part it struggles to go beyond showing us how they complimented him. Perhaps that is inevitable. Johnson is, in many ways, a defiantly pre-modern figure, seeing the world he knows slipping away. As John Wain wrote in the second-best Johnson biography, part of the drama of Boswell’s Life of Johnson derives from the sense that two eras are talking to each other.

Boswell is a new man in Johnson’s world; he belongs to the epoch of Rousseau; all the attitudes that we associate with the end of the eighteenth century—the onset of “sensibility,” the obsession with the individual and the curious, the swelling tide of individuality—are strongly present in him. Where Johnson still belongs to the world of Aristotle and Aquinas, the giant system-builders, Boswell inhabits the ruins of that world. 

In his debates with Boswell, Johnson always comes up with the best lines; but quite often, he has no convincing answer to the questions the modern world is beginning to ask. When Boswell presses him on religious liberty, or divorce, or free will, he irritably shuts down the conversation. You can sense his intensely rational mind struggling for an answer, and discovering its limits. 

Samuel Beckett had a point when he remarked that “Dr J.’s dogmatisme was the façade of consternation. The eighteenth century was full of ahuris [bewildered people]—perhaps that is why it looked like the age of ‘reason.’” But if Johnson was sometimes bewildered, that is not the abiding impression from the biographies and from his own writings. It is, rather, of a life driven by the conviction that those who honestly seek truth and goodness will find them. And so he did. 

These days, incidentally, the people of Lichfield gather every year on September 18 to mark Johnson’s birthday. The mayor lays a wreath, and you can pick up a free slice of cake at the Birthplace Museum.

Dan Hitchens is a senior editor at First Things.