Johnsonian Gleanings

In my post below on David Albert’s striking review of Lawrence Krauss’s new book in the current New York Times Book Review, I messed up the link to Samuel Johnson’s great essay on Soame Jenyns’ Free Enquiry Into the Nature and Origin of Evil. Memory of Jenyns’ otherwise forgettable book lives on thanks to the explosion it triggered in Johnson. Johnson’s essay is available online in a form edited by Jack Lynch, a scholar of Johnson and eighteenth-century English literature.

Johnson is one of the great literary figures of all time, though it took James Boswell to translate that greatness into the pages of a book, in what has to be the greatest biography ever written. Adam Sisman’s recent account of the writing of the biography is an entertaining companion to Boswell’s Life of Johnson. In our own day, Walter Jackson Bate brought Johnson to life in a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography that was also a labor of love. (Bate retired after a distinguished career at Harvard in 1986 and died in 1999.)

The discovery of Boswell’s voluminous journals at Malahide Castle in the 1920’s led to the publication of Boswell’s papers by Yale University Press in a series that appears to be endless. Boswell’s London Journal (1762-1763) proved to be a surprise best-seller upon its publication in 1950. (It was racier than whatever Harold Robbins had on the bestseller list that year.) George MacDonald Fraser’s explanatory note on the discovery of the Flashman papers provides a comic variation of the saga of the Boswell papers.

What is it about Jenyns’ book that set Johnson off? Jenyns’ “glib optimism” (as Bate calls it) in the face of human suffering, and his complacency over the problem that human suffering poses to religious belief, struck a nerve. Reading by or about Johnson is an exercise in humane learning. To paraphrase Johnson on London, he who is tired of Johnson is tired of life.


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