The Magazine

The Good Doctor

Samuel Johnson, writer and sage.

Nov 9, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 08 • By EDWARD SHORT
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Samuel Johnson
A Biography by Peter Martin Harvard, 640 pp., $35

 

Samuel Johnson
The Struggle by Jeffrey Meyers Basic Books, 552 pp., $35

Samuel Johnson
A Life by David Nokes Henry Holt, 448 pp., $32

James Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson (1791) may be the greatest biography ever written, but it is also uneven, unbalanced, and anything but definitive. In the last 60 years many Johnsonians have rounded out Boswell's account. James Clifford re-created his pugnacious youth; Walter Jackson Bate explored his moral vision; Donald Greene took up his politics; Jonathan Clark meticulously delineated his essential Toryism; Robert DeMaria reassessed his literary achievement; Henry Hitchings revisited his lexicographical innovations; and Ian McIntyre just completed a study of his relationship with Hester Thrale.

Now, to mark Johnson's 300th birthday, Peter Martin, Jeffrey Meyers, and David Nokes have written new biographies of the poet, lexicographer, essayist, critic, biographer, and editor who dominated the late 18th century, and has fascinated readers ever since.

Johnson's life can be seen best as a study in indomitability. Born in the cathedral town of Lichfield in 1709, half-blind and scarred with scrofula, he later recalled that he "was born almost dead and could not cry for some time." His father was a bookseller and his mother a peevish, implacable woman. At Lichfield Grammar School, he had Latin beaten into him by a schoolmaster who would cry out as he thrashed his charges: "I do this to save you from the gallows."

Johnson escaped the gallows but not debtor's prison. Poverty dogged him all his days until George III awarded him a pension in his fifties. He could only afford to spend a year at Oxford, and when he returned dejectedly to Lichfield, he suffered the first of his two crack-ups, which nearly relieved him of his sanity. After failing to make a living as a schoolmaster, he moved to London and put himself to school in the arts of Grub Street, where he gradually established himself as "that great Cham of literature," as Tobias Smollet called him.

The works on which Johnson's literary reputation is based include the pioneering Life of Savage (1744); the long poem, The Vanity of Human Wishes (1749), which T.S. Eliot thought superior to Gray's Elegy and "the perfect theme for his abilities"; his great Dictionary (1755), on which Noah Webster and James Murray based their dictionaries; Rasselas: The Prince of Abyssinia (1759), an Oriental tale featuring some of Johnson's wittiest prose, which he dashed off in two weeks to bury his mother; A Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland (1775), a caustic account of his trip to the Hebrides with Boswell; a fascinating edition of the works of Shakespeare (1765); and his magnificent Lives of the English Poets (1779-81), which Oxford recently released in a superb four-volume set edited by Roger Lonsdale. Johnson also wrote some of the greatest essays in the language, including a series of moral essays for a periodical called The Rambler (1750-52) and a series of more lighthearted essays for two other periodicals, The Adventurer (1754) and The Idler (1758-1760).

That most of these works remain available in popular editions refutes the claim that Johnson is no longer read. The common reader, "uncorrupted by literary prejudices," with whom Johnson "rejoiced to concur," continues to enjoy the power and richness of his work.

In 1735, Johnson married Elizabeth Porter, a widow 20 years his senior, who fell in love with the genius of her unlikely suitor, if not his grotesque person, telling her daughter: "This is the most sensible man that I ever saw in my life. " Her death inspired Johnson's greatest sermon, which he wrote to bear the seemingly unbearable trial of bereavement. "The only end of writing," he once wrote, "is to enable the reader better to enjoy life, or better to endure it. " In his sermon for Tetty, he practiced what he preached.

Since one of Johnson's deepest convictions was that "a decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization," he made his successive London homes a haven for strays and misfits and often walked the streets at night to put pennies in the palms of sleeping homeless children. Still, when it came to poverty and the problems that perpetuate poverty, Johnson was no liberal; he believed in alms, not government handouts. And he also believed in something our own liberals abominate: personal responsibility. "Resolve not to be poor," Johnson urged the extravagant Boswell, "spend less. Poverty is a great enemy to human happiness; it certainly destroys liberty, and it makes some virtues impracticable."

On Monday, May 16, 1762, Boswell met Johnson in Tom Davies's bookshop, and it is from that momentous day that he began to draft his own largely eyewitness account of Johnson's life in London, which he lived in company with some of the greatest figures of the age, including Edmund Burke, Joshua Reynolds, Oliver Goldsmith, David Garrick, and Edward Gibbon, all of whom were also members of Johnson's famous Club, where Boswell heard and recorded many of the brilliant conversations that give his biography so much of its exuberant life.

To show the extent to which Boswell honored Georgian proprieties, Meyers quotes several diary entries that Boswell suppressed from his Life. These include Johnson's conviction that "unless a woman has amorous heart she is a dull companion" and his revelation that his wife had told him "I might lie with as many women as I pleased provided I loved her alone"--an offer Johnson apparently never took her up on but which nonetheless shows that the two may not have enjoyed conjugal relations. Still, if Boswell bowdlerized the more salacious aspects of Johnson's life, he had no qualms about pumping his hero's inner circle. He particularly hounded Elizabeth Desmoulins, one of Johnson's indigent lodgers, who admitted that "she actually got into bed with Johnson while Tetty was sleeping in the next room," though Johnson "commanded his passion."

Most biographers would have been content with this but Boswell probed further, until Desmoulins confessed: "I have many times considered how I should behave, supposing [Johnson] should proceed to extremities. . . . [Though he was] so terribly disgusting . . . . such was my high respect for him, such the awe I felt of him, that I could not have had resolution to have resisted him. " Here Meyers cannot resist adding, with ludicrous prurience: "Tetty and Desmoulins, his two Elizabeths, were the closest he ever came to realizing his fantasies about having a Turkish seraglio."

Meyers is good on Johnson's condemnation of the slave trade at a time when many of the 20,000 blacks living in London were poorly paid servants. Francis Barber, Johnson's Jamaican servant, whom Meyers believes might have been the son of Johnson's good friend Richard Bathhurst, was a notable exception: Johnson made him his principal heir, after rescuing him from the navy and paying his fees for five years of schooling at Hertfordshire--to the tune of £300.

"A black man and naval veteran in his late twenties," Meyers observes, "must have been wildly out of place among rural English schoolboys."

Meyers departs from the general consensus on Johnson by arguing that he was anti-Catholic. Specifically, he cites Johnson's translation of the 17th-century Portuguese Jesuit Father Lobo's Voyage to Abyssinia (1735), in one passage of which Johnson excoriated the Jesuit missionaries on the grounds that they "preach the Gospel with swords in their hands, and propagate by desolation and slaughter the true worship of the God of Peace." Meyers infers from this and from Johnson's lifelong contempt for the Catholic French that his subject regarded the Roman Church as "cruel, insolent, and oppressive."

Those who consult Boswell and Johnson will know that this was not Johnson's settled view. In the Life, Johnson is quoted as saying that "a good man of a timorous disposition in great doubt of his acceptance with God, and pretty credulous, might be glad to be of a church where there are so many helps to get to Heaven. I would be a Papist if I could. I have fear enough; but an obstinate rationality prevents me."

He was equally indulgent towards what might be thought the sins of the Roman Church. In the Harwich stagecoach one afternoon in 1763, Johnson and Boswell encountered a woman inveighing against the Spanish Inquisition. Johnson, to what Boswell describes as the "utter astonishment of all the other passengers," defended it, maintaining that "false doctrine should be checked on its first appearance; that the civil power should unite with the church in punishing those who dare to attack the established religion, and that such only were punished by the Inquisition."

Indeed, Johnson habitually spoke so well of Catholicism that the father of his good friend Bennet Langton believed he was actually Catholic. Of course, some might attribute this to Johnson's habit of advocating unpopular positions to exhibit his debating skills; but he was also a fiercely independent thinker, not to mention partial to the Stuarts; so it would have been surprising if he had not had a good word for the old faith.

Meyers may be quick to expose Boswell's suppression of evidence--indeed, he is convinced that "biographers, like lawyers, should be required to take a course in evidence"--but as his handling of Johnson's religious views shows, he is ready to suppress evidence himself when it suits his purposes. Still, Meyers has written an engaging book. Thoroughly in command of his sources, he writes with brisk efficiency and has genuinely new things to say about the life and work. He includes a lively epilogue on the influence Johnson had on such writers as Jane Austen, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Virginia Woolf, and Samuel Beckett. And he appreciates how it was often Johnson's vulnerability that prompted his truculence: "The loud explosions were guns of distress," as Boswell neatly put it.

Still, Meyers plays fast and loose with the historical record by claiming that Johnson was "progressive." Simply because he abhorred the "race of wretches . . . whose favorite amusement is to nail dogs to tables and open them alive," or felt that there should be a "more rational and equitable adaptation of penalties to offences" in English courts of law, does not make him "progressive." In the continuing debate over Johnson's politics, Meyers sides with Greene, who disputed Clark's claim that Johnson's Toryism consistently proceeded from his lifelong commitment to "order, rank, and subordination." Yet even Greene recognized that Johnson tended to a kind of "skeptical conservatism" and distrusted fashionable shibboleths. The very word "progressive" would have struck Johnson as delusive.

Martin follows Meyers in trying to make Johnson more sympathetic by making him more contemporary. Yet, in his preface, he admits that he has his work cut out for him:

 

Paradoxically, in spite of Johnson's iconic status and occasional programmes about him on television and on the radio, I have been surprised from spot interviews in the high streets of several English towns that only about a quarter of people I spoke to could identify him. Some wondered whether he was a boxer, or a contemporary of Shakespeare's, or a Canadian sprinter convicted of drug-taking, or a leading Conservative MP.

 

By saddling Johnson with something as meaningless as "iconic status," Martin signals the tone that he means to take with his reader. If Johnson treated his reader with straightforward respect, Martin treats his as though he were as ill-informed as the High Street English. For example, he claims, "When one reads Johnson, one is struck by how modern he is. Far from being rigidly conservative, backward-looking, and authoritarian, he was one of the most advanced liberals of his time." Yet the word liberal as a term of political affiliation only entered the language in 1801, 17 years after Johnson's death. This anachronistic misrepresentation may flatter the Englishman in the street, but it will be of no use to those interested in the historical Johnson. Simply because Johnson was not an inveterate Tory does not make him a liberal, advanced or otherwise.

Martin, in his earlier biography of Boswell, looked beyond his subject's wenching and carousing to focus on the scrupulous biographer and the improbable family man. His present biography is good on Johnson's friendship with Mrs. Thrale and other women--a topic that cries out for more scholarly treatment--but rather less good on many other matters. In his preface, Martin chides Boswell for neglecting his hero's literary achievement, but the incorrigible Boswell certainly understood the force of Johnson's moral essays and made at least one observation that nicely sums up all of Johnson's writing.

Wrote Boswell:

 

His superiority over other learned men consisted chiefly in what may be called the art of thinking, the art of using his mind; a certain continual power of seizing the useful substance of all that he knew, and exhibiting it in a clear and forcible manner; so that knowledge, which we often see to be no better than lumber in men of dull understanding, was, in him, true, evident, and actual wisdom.

 

When Martin takes up the work, he is either banal or fatuous. About London: A Poem, which rehearses so many of Johnson's major themes, Martin can find nothing more to say than that it possesses "energy," "animus," and what he calls "currency in the present political situation." Of the Life of Savage he offers this baffling gloss: "Johnson was enraged by society's obtuse, clumsy, ill-conceived philanthropy that organized Savage's" miseries of dependence "and coerced him to go west"--that is to say, to Wales, whenever the spendthrift poet ran out of money. Martin's is a characteristically muddled sentence--how does one organize misery?--but if what he is trying to say is that Johnson blamed society for Savage's follies, he needs to reread the book.

Martin makes a similar hash of the great moral essays of The Rambler. "Complicated human behaviour cannot be reduced to easy choices," he writes. "Nobody can attain perfection, so to judge others is a dangerous and misguided business. " In other words, don't be judgmental. For Martin, this is the essence of what England's greatest moralist has to say to his readers. He sees the import of Johnson's literary criticism in similarly simple-minded terms: "Literature was not for him a rarefied aspect of human expression but part of ordinary and endlessly complicated life itself; it was another of life's pleasures."

Granted, not all biographers are obliged to be critics; but even on strict biographical grounds, Martin is slapdash. Of all the events in Johnson's fascinating life, none is more moving than the amends he made for his filial ingratitude. When Johnson was a proud, frustrated, bitter young man, and without the necessary fees to remain at Oxford, he had no alternative but to rejoin his father in his failed bookshop. But rather than help salvage the business, Johnson disdained it and spent most of his time brooding.

Fifty years later, as Johnson told Boswell, "I desired to atone for this fault; I went to Uttoxeter in very bad weather, and stood for a considerable time bareheaded in the rain, on the spot where my father's stall used to stand. In contrition I stood, and I hope the penance was expiatory." All Martin can bring himself to say about this is: "The scene has been pictorially represented and cited so many times that it has been certified as one of the great images of Johnson's troubled soul." This is characteristic of his perfunctory treatment of many pivotal events of his subject's life.

Readers who expect a modicum of good English from authors will look askance at Martin's odd use of the word "certified." But then he misuses words on nearly every page. He writes of a "fresh boost to his disaffection and alienation," of the Christian doctrines of original sin and damnation constituting what he calls "Protestant fundamentalism," of Michael Johnson's bankrupt bookshop as "a bookish bower of bliss." Worse, in a feeble attempt to be funny, he calls the conversations that Boswell so brilliantly re-creates in the Life "bull-sessions."

The Oxford English Dictionary defines "bull" as "trivial, insincere, or untruthful talk . . . nonsense." If this is how Martin regards the conversation of Samuel Johnson and his friends, why should he bother sharing it with anyone?

There is nothing wrong with trying to make Johnson sympathetic to contemporary readers; but he should not be treated as though his greatness were somehow reliant on whether he shares (or can be made to appear to share) the prejudices of current readers. There is a contemptible vanity in this approach to literature, of which neither Martin nor Meyers is entirely free. The literary critic A.D. Nuttall saw the same narcissism in those who wish "to be handed not Milton, but a Miltonized version of their own features."

What makes Johnson great are not his views about this or that political issue--"Why, Sir, most schemes of political improvement," he told Boswell, "are very laughable things"--but his genius, good-heartedness, courage, wit, and of course, his profoundly enjoyable, profoundly instructive writings. In one of his greatest books, A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, Johnson defined the historical sense that gives all learning--including biography--its universal appeal. After visiting Iona, the birthplace of Christianity in Scotland and northern England, Johnson wrote:

 

Whatever withdraws us from the power of our senses; whatever makes the past, the distant, or the future predominate over the present, advances us in the dignity of thinking beings. Far from me and from my friends be such frigid philosophy as may conduct us indifferent and unmoved over any ground which has been dignified by wisdom, bravery, or virtue. That man is little to be envied . . . whose piety would not grow warmer among the ruins of Iona.

 

Johnson recommended these ruins not because they flattered the 18th-century English but because they testified to a wisdom, bravery, and virtue noble in their own right. Biographers should endeavor to recommend Johnson with the same imaginative humility and avoid trying to turn him into a mirror of their own or their readers' self-satisfied faces.

David Nokes, who has written good books on Jane Austen and Jonathan Swift, writes the best of the three biographies here precisely because he tells the story of the life through Johnson's own letters--which, taken together, constitute an unsparingly honest, moving record--and never yanks his subject from his proper historical setting. He draws persuasive inferences from Johnson's diaries and presents his critical and biographical judgments with balanced incisiveness.

In the portrait he paints, which is of a brilliant, lonely, God-fearing, turbulent, lovable man, he exemplifies one of Johnson's own firmest convictions: "That there has rarely passed a life of which a judicious and faithful narrative would not be useful."

Edward Short is a writer in New York.