Reading Note:
Monumental Johnson
31 May 2019

Leo Damrosch’s new book, The Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped an Age, is published by Yale. Its orthography is American, and at one point Damrosch sees fit to explain that a guinea is a pound plus a shilling. And yet, when I ordered the book (from Amazon.com, mind), it was shipped to me from Blackwell’s in Oxford. Does Yale expect sales of The Club to be negligible in the United States? Yale’s robust institutional commitments to British art and history suggest that it would publish The Club anyway, but still… It’s a heavy book, but I was charged only three dollars for the shipping and handling. A little mystery.  

The big mystery is why we still read about Dr Johnson and his friends, or at least those of his friends who aren’t famous in their own right. We certainly don’t read Dr Johnson directly. At best, we read Boswell’s Life of Johnson, a literary monument that transcends mere biography — not least because Boswell, whether considered as a man or evaluated as an author, simply doesn’t fit the role of biographer. Every facet of Boswell’s character but one suggests that Boswell was too flighty and self-indulgent a pipsqueak to begin to do his subject justice. Johnson’s other friends certainly sniffed in disdain. But what emerges from the pages of the Life is nothing less (and perhaps something more) than Michelangelo’s Moses. His Johnson is an incarnate allegory of Alphabetic Virtue, and Boswell is his disciple and evangelist. The gospel of Johnson has displaced his own testimony. 

Boswell’s singular exceptional characteristic was his obsession with telling the truth. There were things that he left out of the Life, and names that that he elided, but he does not appear to have materially misrepresented a single detail of Johnson’s expressiveness. In his journals, Boswell was unprecedentedly candid. Damrosch quotes a mordantly funny exchange with Rousseau, whom Boswell pestered with his fandom while in Switzerland. We have the following account, of course, from Boswell himself:

Rousseau: You are irksome to me. It’s my nature. I cannot help it.
Boswell: Do not stand on ceremony with me.
Rousseau: Go away. (112)

What saved Johnson’s fame and Boswell’s book alike from oblivion was the great sympathy felt by the bearded men of the Nineteenth Century for Johnson’s figure, which belonged more to their own time than to what they regarded as an effeminate age. The tall and strong, mighty and masculine Johnson was not so much slovenly as he was too large and craggy to be dapper. How right it was that he toured the wild and remote Scottish isles, rather than the fleshpots of the Continent! That Johnson was afflicted by the dark spells that we recognize as clinical depression only heightened the contrast with his age’s ethos of elegant but brittle self-control. Johnson was also a great Tory, a natural conservative. So natural, in fact, that he was quite comfortable with women and untroubled by anxieties about their subjugation. He may have regarded the differences between men and women as socially functional rather than essential — in our word, “constructed.” Unlike today’s critics, Johnson would not have seen the human construction of gender roles as a reason for abolishing them; quite the contrary. In some ways, Johnson was the first high Victorian.

When I think of Samuel Johnson, it is usually because Jane Austen has just reminded me of him, with one of her quiet burlesques of his periodic style. Austen was the kind of fan whose admiration took the form of elated fun, which is certainly not mockery or satire but rather the mischievous prodding of almost surreptitious exaggeration. Her famous aphorism about the needs of men in possession of great fortunes is apotheothetical tribute to Johnson that has gradually become better-known than anything uttered by Johnson himself. Johnson’s syntax is the ribbing in Austen’s graceful vaults; I think that she would agree that it is what keeps them standing.

All this might account for Johnson’s fame to the present date, but whither forward? I am reading Damrosch for clues. Johnson’s profound comfort with The Way Things Have Always Been, inflected as it is by an even less fashionable sense of Original Sin, makes him an uncongenial subject for an age in search of revolution. Will Johnson become another Falstaff, a shadowy cluster of anecdotes enlivening the pages of British history? 

Scarily, it seems up to Boswell. 

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