The Magazine

The Good Doctor

Samuel Johnson, writer and sage.

Nov 9, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 08 • By EDWARD SHORT
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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.