Sunday, August 9, 2009

Half of Samuel Johnson

Every few decades we are invited to rediscover Samuel Johnson — Joseph Wood Krutch’s biography in 1944, Walter Jackson Bate’s in 1977, and now, at the tercentenary of his birth, Jeffrey Meyers’s Samuel Johnson: The Struggle (Basic Books, 528 pages, $35).

Johnson compels the modern reader more for his personality than his work: His monumental accomplishment, the first comprehensive dictionary of English, has been supplanted by the OED, which absorbed it; his edition of Shakespeare, which established a critical foundation and resisted Bardolatry, has also been superseded; his Lives of the Poets, apart from sharp work on the Big Boys, Milton, Dryden, and Pope, consists of rather carelessly assembled accounts of now-obscure writers; and his essays in the Rambler are written in a compact Latinate style that some thought stilted and artificial in the 18th century and which are not congenial to the modern taste. (This does not speak well of the modern taste.)

No, we are instead fascinated by the heroic figure described by James Boswell in the first great biography in English: left half-blind and half-deaf by a difficult birth, then infected with scrofula by his wet nurse; adrift after leaving Oxford after a single year and suffering a breakdown; troubled by grotesque convulsive twitches, leading some biographers to surmise that he suffered from Tourette’s syndrome; beset throughout his life by spells of profound depression; struggling in grinding poverty as a hack writer, then producing his great dictionary as a solo effort with the assistance of a handful of amanuenses; forming deep friendships with some of the foremost writers and thinkers of the age; celebrated and revered, and finally laid to rest in Westminster Abbey.

All subsequent biographers labor in the shadow of Boswell. Fortunately, recent scholarship has made available information from Boswell’s journals and notes for the biography that Boswell suppressed or distorted, as well as other 18th-century documents, and it is on this material that Mr. Meyers has focused.

First, Samuel Johnson: The Struggle is a highly readable book. If Johnson’s life is well-turned soil by now, Mr. Meyers nevertheless describes the territory clearly and fluently. I would have liked more extensive commentary on Johnson’s literary work, but there are books like Henry Hitchings’s excellent Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr Johnson’s Dictionary (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 293 pages, $24) to consult. Reading Mr. Meyers’s biography was like making a welcome reacquaintance with its subject.

But I regret to say that I put it down disappointed, with the sense that Mr. Meyers’s approach is ultimately reductionist, defining Johnson by his depression and his anguish. It’s true that Johnson was ugly — his bulk, his scarred face, and his convulsive gestures and movements frightened people — and that you would not have wanted to sit next to him at table. It’s true that he suffered throughout his life from bouts of severe depression and from sexual frustration, and it’s also true that his religious belief may have brought him more anxiety than comfort. We know this from Boswell, too. But Mr. Meyers appears to see Johnson’s exuberance and generosity and genius for friendship only in the context of anguish. Of episodes such as the older Johnson’s rolling down a hill for fun, Mr. Meyers says, “Johnson’s spontaneous athletic feats, outbursts of violence and displays of courage were all crucial outlets for his sexual feelings.”

I wish that Mr. Meyers was not so cocksure about Johnson’s sexual practices. His interpretation of the discovery of a padlock entrusted by Johnson to Hester Thrale — a subject of commentary since publication of an essay by Katherine Balderson in 1949 — is that “Johnson’s practice ... combined voluntary humiliation, masochism (rather than sadism), displaced sexuality and religious penance.” Well, maybe. Walter Jackson Bate, ladling a thick layer of Freudianism over this material thirty years ago, suggested that the information from Mrs. Thrale and Johnson’s diary points to “dread of mental paralysis and loss of liberty rather than erotic craving or desire” — a nuanced reading that I find more compelling.

Where others arrive at conjecture, Mr. Meyers reaches certainty; where others see the possibility of metaphoric understanding, he declares literal fact; whether others step carefully around the difficulty of knowing what was in people’s minds or what occurred in their most private acts, he barges in.

Mr. Meyers would argue, no doubt, that he gives full value to Johnson’s positive and even endearing qualities. That material is indeed in his book, but such is his emphasis on Johnson’s misery that the positive material looks more like cross-hatching to enhance the main outline.

As we approach the tercentenary in September, I mean to reread Boswell, and I suggest that you could do worse. Failing that, try Beryl Bainbridge’s exquisite novel about Johnson with the Thrale family, According to Queeney.


It is becoming a ritual to lament that publishers appear to have abandoned copy editing or applied such constraints as to make a thorough job impossible. A copy editor going over the manuscript of Samuel Johnson: The Struggle might have noticed that Benjamin Jowett’s little rhyme about his name is misquoted, or that the wrong dates are given for the American War of Independence (1775-1783, not 1778-1783), or that the fireworks display in 1749 to celebrate the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle (the one for which Handel wrote his “Music for the Royal Fireworks”) marked the conclusion of the War of the Austrian Succession, not the end of the Seven Years’ War (1763).


  1. It's not exactly Jowett's rhyme. It first appears, as far as is known, in the anonymous 1881 Masque of B-ll--l, sometimes attributed to H.C. Beeching, and it exists in multiple versions, so it's hard to know what the urtext is. It's possible that Jowett himself had something to do with it, but there's no real evidence.

    I second the recommendation to read, or reread, Boswell.

  2. Aix-la-Chapelle, not 'le'. Muphry's Law strikes again.