Johnsonian gleanings

I think we have a bone to pick with Google, but I am grateful for the Google doodle reminding us that today is the anniversary of the birth of Samuel Johnson. On the occasion of the 300th anniversary last year, Alan Jacobs offered the fine Books & Culture tribute “Man of sorrow.”

I awakened to Johnson under the tutelage of Professor Jeffrey Hart, who required us to absorb Johnson’s great essay on Soame Jenyns’s Free Enquiry Into the Nature and Origin of Evil. Memory of Jenyns’s 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 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. Thanks to my high school classmate and friend Michael Frost, I attended Bate’s famous lecture on the death of Johnson in Bate’s undergraduate course on the period. It was said to reduce the coeds to tears, but I wasn’t immune myself.

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 on the saga of the Boswell papers.

Johnson’s own most famous work must be his Dictionary of the English Language. Johnson sought to introduce some fixity into the English language. I recall Professor Hart’s citation of the concern expressed in the phrase, “As Chaucer is so shall Shakespeare be.” I can’t find the expression online and must be mangling it. Hart credited the Dictionary with stabilizing the language to some extent. Thankfully, eighteenth-century English remains accessible to us without much need for further explanation. The only true obstacle may be our own blindness to the permanent things.

To return to Jenyns’s book, something in it set Johnson off. Jenyns’s “glib optimism” (as Bate called 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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