John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to email@example.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.
Friday, September 18, 2009
A personal note at the Johnson tercentenary
One caricature of Johnson that has come down to us is the roaring Tory. He did “talk for victory,” and, in a sublime understatement in James Boswell’s Life of Johnson, he was “sometimes a little actuated by the spirit of contradiction.” But he was a complex personality, and deeply humane.
He knew what it was to be poor without a place to spend the night. He knew the grind of turning out hackwork for small pay. He knew the horror of depression and breakdown, and the fear of its return. He knew himself to be ugly, even physically repulsive. His struggles with his own disabilities and disadvantages gave him an insight into and sympathy with the struggles of other human beings.
In No. 14 of the Rambler he wrote:
Nothing is more unjust, however common, than to charge with hypocrisy him that expresses zeal for those virtues, which he neglects to practise; since he may be sincerely convinced of the advantages of conquering his passions, without having yet obtained the victory, as a man may be confident of the advantages of a voyage, or a journey, without having courage or industry to undertake it, and may honestly recommend to others, those attempts which he neglects himself.
In No. 60, the great essay on the writing of biography, he summed up:
We are all prompted by the same motives, all deceived by the same fallacies, all animated by hope, obstructed by danger, entangled by desire, and seduced by pleasure.
Human life, he saw, was a struggle “in which much is to be endured, and little to be enjoyed.” His own career is mirrored in the famous line from his poem London:
SLOW RISES WORTH, BY POVERTY DEPRESSED
And yet, all this granted, he had a genius for friendship, a relish of conversation, and — despite his self-condemnations for indolence and procrastination — an energy to take on and complete huge and complex tasks. One of the things that ring most true in Boswell’s grand biography is his image of Johnson as a gladiator in the amphitheater of his own mind, heroically combating the apprehensions that beset him.
Twenty years ago, in a vacation in London, I made a pilgrimage to the garret in Gough Square where, sitting in a defective chair propped against a wall, Johnson labored for nearly nine years to produce the first comprehensive dictionary of the English language, and I stood, my head bowed, for a moment at his grave in Westminster Abbey.
His work and his example merit our attention and respect.