On Samuel Johnson

December 13, 2015

The Life of Johnson
James Boswell
(Everyman’s Library, 1993) [1791]
1344 p.

Samuel Johnson
W. Jackson Bate
(Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975)
668 p.

“Fate wings with ev’ry wish the afflictive dart”
— “The Vanity of Human Wishes”

Samuel Johnson is one of those rare figures who can take up a permanent place in one’s moral and imaginative life. A colossal genius, one of the English language’s great masters, a probing moralist, and a man of great personal courage and fortitude, one can walk around him and find something admirable from every vantage point. In his excellent biography, W. Jackson Bate comments that as our familiarity with Johnson improves “we begin to think of him as almost an allegorical figure, like “Valiant-for-Truth” in The Pilgrim’s Progress,” and this I have found to be quite true.

johnsonI dare say Johnson is unique in English letters for having a reputation derived to a very great extent from things he did not write down. We admire his writing, of course — his great Dictionary, his “Preface to Shakespeare”, his many moral essays, his novella Rassalas — but Johnson himself towers over his pen. And we know about Johnson the man principally through the massive Life which James Boswell assembled over the course of their long friendship, and in which, with quiet tenacity, he faithfully recorded Johnson’s conversation at table, among friends, or in London society, or at home. The Life is one of our great biographical treasure troves. For my private enjoyment I’ve assembled page after page of memorable quotations and winsome stories plundered from its pages.

In fact, so central has been Boswell’s role in bringing Johnson to later generations, it is a little startling to be reminded, as Bate reminds us, that Boswell did not meet Johnson until he (Johnson) was already in his 50s, and that over the 21 years of their friendship they were actually in one another’s company for only about 300 days (excluding their several months’ excursion to Scotland). Fully half of the Life covers just the last 8 years of Johnson’s life. There were social connections important to Johnson, such as that with the Thrale family, of which Boswell had little direct knowledge. Even the common honorific “Dr Johnson” is due mainly to Boswell’s influence; Johnson himself preferred to be called simply “Mr Johnson”. In this respect a biography like Bate’s is valuable for filling in the background and rounding out the figure.

To be fair, there is a good deal more to Bate’s biography than just “filling in” and “rounding out”. It is an ambitious effort to come to grips with Johnson in all of his considerable complexity. Because of the wider variety of sources informing it it arguably tells us more about Johnson than Boswell does. Bate is a sensitive reader, and seems to have a secure footing even when stepping through the murky waters of Johnson’s slough of despond. Having said that, in the end Boswell will bury all other biographers.

Johnson was praised in his own day for his originality (“He said even the commonest things in the newest manner”), his courage and honesty, his humour (“the size of a man’s understanding might always be justly measured by his mirth” [Johnson]), and his intellectual range. In his biography of Francis Bacon, Johnson described Bacon as “a strong mind operating upon life,” and admirers of Johnson have found the phrase just as apt when applied to Johnson himself. Boswell summarized this aspect of Johnson’s character thus:

“His superiority over other learned men consisted chiefly in what may be called the art of thinking, the art of using his mind; a certain continual power of seizing the useful substance of all that he knew, and exhibiting it in a clear and forcible manner; so that knowledge which we often see to be no better than lumber in men of dull understanding, was in him true, evident, and actual wisdom.”

Johnson suffered greatly throughout his life. He was, from childhood, afflicted with serious physical ailments, including blindness in one eye and more or less continual pain. Despite his intellectual gifts, his finances prevented his obtaining a university degree. He struggled with self-discipline, constantly renewing his resolve to rise early, work diligently, and retire early to bed, and constantly failing in his resolve. He battled a lasting fear of insanity, and suffered recurring black humours that today we would probably call depression. He was ever alert to the dangers proceeding from “the treachery of the human heart.” He combined a trust in Providence with an unsentimental appraisal of the hardships of living, and was known to become very angry with anyone who ventured to deny the unhappiness of life. Perhaps because of this suffering, he was generous and compassionate with those in need. He lived modestly, and took into his home a rotating group of destitute guests.

On 17 June 1783, Johnson suffered a paralytic stroke, an injury from which he was never to fully recover. Of this experience he wrote, rather endearingly, that “I was alarmed, and prayed God, that however he might afflict my body, he would spare my understanding. This prayer, that I might try the integrity of my faculties, I made in Latin verse.” Some months later, on 13 December 1784, he died. Boswell writes that it was William Gerard Hamilton who best expressed the feelings of Johnson’s friends upon his passing:

“He has made a chasm, which not only nothing can fill up, but which nothing has a tendency to fill up. — Johnson is dead. — Let us go to the next best: There is nobody. — no man can be said to put you in mind of Johnson.”

It is a fitting encomium on a life well-lived.

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