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Johnson at 300

Celebrating that Infant Hercules of Toryism.

12:00 AM, Sep 25, 2009 • By HENRIK BERING
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For five days last week, 113 Johnsonians descended on Pembroke College, Oxford, to celebrate the birth 300 years ago of Samuel Johnson, that Infant Hercules of Toryism, as Boswell memorably called him. They ranged from the top scholars in the field to ordinary mortals with an interest in Johnson and came from as far away as China, Japan, and Australia. But let's make it clear from the beginning: Johnsonians are very different from Jane Austen groupies, who dress up in period costumes and bonnets for their gatherings, much like Civil War reenactors. Johnsonians take a dim view of such theatrics. There was not periwig or a buckled shoe in sight.

Pembroke was Johnson's college, though only for 13 months: He had to leave in 1729 without a degree because he fell behind on the fees. Boswell tells us how Johnson used to come to Christ Church across the street to copy the lecture notes of a friend, until too embarrassed to show himself, as his toes stuck out of his shoes, which was remarked upon by the snooty Christ Church men.

When friends put a pair of new shoes in front of Johnson's door as a gift, he threw them away angrily, too proud to accept them. Though forced to leave, he always thought highly of his tutors at Pembroke, and returned to visit later in life. Besides a very strong tradition in Johnson studies, the college has two of his undergraduate essays and the manuscript for his Prayers and Meditations. (According to the library's register, he still has a book that is overdue.) The college also has his teapot and his teacup, the latter painstakingly repaired after a hapless erstwhile librarian dropped it.

But though the mood of the conference was celebratory, there was cause for worry: In a recent survey of authors taught at American universities, Johnson has dropped from the respectable position of number eight five decades ago down to number 25 today, which is absurd for a person whose Dictionary ranks among the greatest scholarly achievements of all time. To the degree that students know about Johnson at all, they know of him from Boswell.

In an attempt to carve a space for themselves, some of Johnson's recent biographers have argued that Boswell got it all wrong, portraying his own needs rather than those of his subject, and we therefore should ignore Boswell. Whereupon they proceed to plunder him to their hearts content. This seems both foolish and dishonest.

A more levelheaded Johnson biographer stated that in the first 54 years of Johnson's life, before Boswell met him, he had felt like standing outside a building, looking into a dark room where he could vaguely see some people moving about. This is transformed into a well lit room the moment Boswell enters, and the reader feels present in the room. But acknowledging Boswell's huge contribution does not invalidate the need to read Johnson's own writings, which was one of the goals of the conference.

But as always when discussing Johnson, which Johnson were we dealing with? The intellectual bully who talked for victory, Pomposo as the caricaturist James Gillray called him, and of whom Oliver Goldsmith said "There is no arguing with Johnson; for when his pistol misses fire, he knocks you down with the butt end of it." Or the kindhearted and tolerant Johnson who would put up with Boswell's flaws and neediness. The religious bigot, or the man Boswell said "was very liberal in this thinking" when you had him one on one. The lonely, depressed sufferer from Tourette's syndrome or the convivial Johnson, the natural center of any gathering, who constantly emphasizes the need for human companionship and private friendship. All aspects were present in some form at the conference, and all had their defenders.

In response to those who want to cut Johnson down to size, or "humanize" him, some delegates particularly warned against reducing him to a psychological case: Johnson suffered from a host of maladies and afflictions, but he battled them head on and with great bravery. In fact, as several delegates noted, one could derive more solace and inspiration from reading Johnson than from an army of psychiatrists, who often seem to propagate that which they claim to battle. Johnson represents the very opposite pole from the modern dependency culture.

Other speakers reminded us what a lucid and entertaining critic he is in his Lives of the English Poets. Though he has become known for his "fault" finding, his close examinations of the texts represent a reaction against the contemporary habit of listing literary "beauties," and is a forerunner of modern textual criticism. Even at his most opinionated and unfair as in the Life of Swift, whose poetry he omits discussing on the grounds that that there "is not much upon which the critic can exercise his powers," he provides insight--no doubt because there are of certain points of likeness between the two authors.