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.
While Johnsonians may differ on matters of emphasis regarding their man, certain things bind them together: A deep distaste for the Romantics and everything they represent, which became plain during a visit to one of the other colleges Johnson had strong connections to, University College: When passing Edward Onslow Ford's exceedingly decadent fin de siècle sculpture that shows the drowned poet Shelley artfully arranged on a slab of Cremona marble, one delegate was heard scornfully muttering about Shelley's "remarkably flaccid member." Perhaps a bit uncharitable, given the fact that the man had just drowned, but indicative of the robust spirit governing the proceedings.
Not all the time was spent listening to papers. A series of events were planned along with the seminars: A Mozart string concerto was performed in Johnson's honor in the Pembroke college chapel, somewhat ironic when considering Johnson's profound lack of interest in music. Once when inattentive during a concert, a friend pointed out the technical difficulty involved. Johnson replied: "Difficult, do you call it, Sir? I wish it were impossible."
A visit to the college wine cellars was also a must, considering the fact that Johnson was capable of downing great amounts of claret, when not confining himself to lemonade: "No sir, claret is the liquor for boys; port for men; but he who aspires to be a hero (smiling) must drink brandy." When some delegates showed up the next morning somewhat worse for wear, others were quick to recall Johnson's rebuke to Boswell: "Sir, you are without any skills in inebriation."
One thing is certain, these people don't frighten easily. When the fire alarm went off three times during the gala dinner in the great hall of Pembroke, nobody paid it the slightest attention.
But looking over the delegates, one could not fail to notice that the great majority were white males. Perhaps one should swallow one's pride and send out feelers to the Jane Austen Society, inviting the prettiest and the cleverest for the next Johnson bash. As one of the great pleasures of life, Johnson mentioned "Driving briskly in a post chaise with a pretty woman," but added "she must be someone who can understand me, and would add something to the conversation." So these are the criteria for receiving an invitation. And Oh yes, promise to leave those bonnets at home.
Henrik Bering is a writer and critic. He read English at Pembroke.