Of dreams and dictionaries

Filling in at Instapundit while Glenn Reynolds takes a break are (in alphabetical order) Ann Althouse, Kenneth Anderson, Ed Driscoll, and Michael Totten. They comprise a blogger supergroup, and yet it appears to take the four of them to replicate Glenn’s usual daily output of links and commentary.
Which reminds me of the true story of Samuel Johnson, the great English man of letters. In 1746 Johnson undertook the task of creating an authoritative dictionary of the English language comparable to “the magnificent dictionaries of the [French and Italian national] Academies,” as Walter Jackson Bate puts it in his Samuel Johnson. How could Johnson pull the task off by himself? Even Johnson’s friends wondered:

Johnson’s friend Dr. William Adams marveled that Johnson expected to finish the project in three years; Adams pointed out that it had taken the French Academy’s forty members forty years to compile the French dictionary (in fact, it had taken the French Academy fifty-five years). Johnson was said to have replied: “Let me see; forty times forty is sixteen hundred. As three to sixteen hundred, so is the proportion of an Englishman to a Frenchman.”

Boswell concludes his account of Johnson’s conversation with Adams: “With so much ease and pleasantry could he talk of that prodigious labor which he had undertaken to execute.” In the event, however, it took Johnson nine years to produce his monumental Dictionary of the English Language. One senses that Boswell might have missed an undercurrent in the tone of Johnson’s remarks. Here at any rate is how Johnson concludes his preface to the Dictionary, looking back upon the fruit of his labors:

In this work, when it shall be found that much is omitted, let it not be forgotten that much likewise is performed; and though no book was ever spared out of tenderness to the authour, and the world is little solicitous to know whence proceeded the faults of that which it condemns; yet it may gratify curiosity to inform it, that the English Dictionary was written with little assistance of the learned, and without any patronage of the great; not in the soft obscurities of retirement, or under the shelter of academick bowers, but amidst inconvenience and distraction, in sickness and in sorrow: and it may repress the triumph of malignant criticism to observe, that if our language is not here fully displayed, I have only failed in an attempt which no human powers have hitherto completed.
If the lexicons of ancient tongues, now immutably fixed, and comprised in a few volumes, be yet, after the toil of successive ages, inadequate and delusive; if the aggregated knowledge, and co-operating diligence of the Italian academicians, did not secure them from the censure of Beni; if the embodied criticks of France, when fifty years had been spent upon their work, were obligated to change its oeconomy, and give their second edition another form, I may surely be contented without the praise of perfection, which, if I could obtain, in this gloom of solitude, what would it avail me? I have protracted my work till most of those whom I wished to please, have sunk into the grave, and success and miscarriage are empty sounds: I therefore dismiss it with frigid tranquillity, having little to fear or hope from censure or from praise.

As Johnson wrote in his Letter to Lord Chesterfield: “Having carried on my work thus far with so little obligation to any favourer of learning, I shall not be disappointed though I should conclude it, if less be possible, with less; for I have been long wakened from that dream of hope, in which I once boasted myself with so much exultation.”


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