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Dr. Johnson Speaks

On language, English words, and life.

Jan 1, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 16 • By JACK LYNCH
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Johnson on the English Language

Vol. 18, The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson

Edited by Gwin J. Kolb
and Robert DeMaria

Yale, 560 pp., $90

Samuel Johnson died 222 years ago, and in all that time there has been surprisingly little agreement about what he thought about many important questions.

He wrote about politics: Some see him as a diehard conservative, others as an advocate for the policies of the modern left. He wrote about empire: Some see him as a devoted imperialist, others as an enemy of imperial expansion. He wrote about economics: Some see him as a champion of modern capitalism, others as an opponent of the free market. He wrote about the sexes: Some see him as a determined misogynist, others as the most devoted feminist thinker of his day.

Why so little agreement after so many years? It's not for lack of material. Johnson's published writings fill dozens of volumes: A play, a few short fictions, a travel book, a stack of political pamphlets, dozens of poems, more than 50 biographies, several hundred essays, a complete annotated edition of the works of Shakespeare, and tens of thousands of definitions in his great Dictionary. And then there are the five fat volumes of his letters and, most famously, Boswell's Life of Johnson, recording more than a thousand pages of his conversation. Perhaps no writer in English is better documented.

It's not for lack of attention. In the years since his death, scholars have been poring over those dozens of volumes and trying to make sense of their author. Johnson has been the subject of hundreds of books and thousands of articles. Each year sees another 150 or so titles in which he is chronicled, celebrated, abused, psychoanalyzed, and deconstructed. He's a mainstay of English literature surveys, of graduate seminars, and of professional conferences. He remains a source of fascination for both professors and journalists; he is the subject of both dissertations and books of Christian devotion.

It's certainly not because he was hesitant to speak his mind. Johnson, famously blunt in both his writing and his conversation, loved controversy. Sugarcoating was not for him. When Boswell tried to defend a woman who cheated on her husband, Johnson would have none of it: "The woman's a whore," he insisted, "and there's an end on't." In political disputes he could be brutal. He dismissed the rebellious American colonists as "Rascals--Robbers--Pirates," who "ought to be thankful for anything we allow them short of hanging." He went so far as to declare that he was "willing to love all mankind, except an American." Even literary masterpieces didn't escape his forceful criticism. Henry Fielding, one of England's greatest novelists, was "a blockhead." Paradise Lost, he said, "is one of the books which the reader admires and puts down, and forgets to take up again. None ever wished it longer than it is." And even "Shakespeare never has six lines together without a fault."

Why, then, does Johnson remain so elusive? The real reason is that his mind is one of the richest and most complicated of his era, perhaps of any era. It's notoriously difficult to pin him down or to reduce him to sound bites. The subtlety and precision of his thought are both the reason people have been drawn to him for so many years and the reason they disagree even after all that careful reading. To pigeonhole him as "liberal" or "conservative," "imperialist" or "anti-imperialist," forces us to be very clear about what we mean by those words, because he's almost always too complicated to fit neatly into any of our categories.

The English language is where Johnson did some of his most important work, and debates about the significance of that work continue to this day. His famous Dictionary of the English Language appeared in two huge volumes in 1755. Contrary to the popular myth, it was not the first English dictionary--Johnson had dozens of predecessors in English-language lexicography. In fact, he had few big ideas that can be called original, in his Dictionary or elsewhere. There's no Johnsonian theorem, no Johnsonian method, no Johnsonian discovery. As a poet he didn't invent a Johnsonian stanza; as a political writer he didn't develop a Johnsonian system. His friend Adam Smith laid the foundations for modern economic thought; his enemy David Hume turned philosophy on its head; his acquaintance Benjamin Franklin was one of the most prolific inventors in history. Johnson, on the other hand, wasn't a "first" in anything important, including his Dictionary.

As two scholars put it 50 years ago, "Johnson, as lexicographer, asked no questions, gave no answers, and invented no techniques which were new to Europe."