Man of Fetters - Dr. Johnson and Mrs. Thrale

Dr Johnson and Sir Joshua Reynolds Taking Tea with Mrs Thrale

Dr Johnson and Sir Joshua Reynolds Taking Tea with Mrs Thrale by Edward Matthew Ward

The historian who sets out to write a new biography of Samuel Johnson is in more or less the same position as someone who sets out to write a day-by-day account of the life of Samuel Pepys. Although the promise is to see the thing from a new angle, the truth is that the thing and the angle it was seen from originally are essentially the same. Samuel Johnson was a fine poet, a good if solemn essayist, and an inspired critic of other people’s writing. But the Johnson we remember is the one James Boswell wrote down. Great wits abound. The novelist Reggie Turner was, most people agreed, the wittiest talker of the eighteen-nineties, not a bad vintage for witty talkers; when he eventually got a biography, not a single witty remark remained, and his life sank with his Life. Johnson survives because Boswell was there to write down that when Johnson was asked if any man alive could have written the pseudo-bard Ossian’s poems he said, “Yes, sir, many men, many women, and many children,” and that when he was asked his view of “Gulliver’s Travels” he said, “When once you have thought of big men and little men, it is very easy to do all the rest,” and that when a dense disciple said, “I don’t understand you, Sir,” Johnson, speaking for every teacher, said, “Sir, I have found you an argument, but I am not obliged to find you an understanding,” and that he observed of a pious libertine, “Yes, sir, no man is a hypocrite in his pleasures.” He lives in his talk, and his talk lives because of his listener.

 “To be regarded in his own age as a classic, and in ours as a companion!” Thomas Macaulay wrote half a century after Johnson’s death. “Those peculiarities of manner, and that careless table-talk, the memory of which, he probably thought, would die with him, are likely to be remembered as long as the English language is spoken in any quarter of the globe.” Boswell’s Johnson is, in some sense, the first recorded modern personality, whose character is reflected in habits and tics and addictions, in the minutiae of a literary life—his cat Hodge, his orange peels, his unintentional sideways sallies—as much as in neatly set virtues and vices.

Yet the reasons that Boswell’s life of Johnson needs supplement form a little litany: Boswell didn’t really know him that well, or spend that many days with him (scarcely six months over twenty-some years); he knew him only later in life, when the once hungry Johnson had been stuffed with food and fame; he underrated his poetry and overrated his piety. Two new lives, Peter Martin’s “Samuel Johnson” (Harvard; $35) and Jeffrey Meyers’s “Samuel Johnson: The Struggle” (Basic; $35), continue the attempt to make Johnson radical and romantic and all the things that Boswell is supposed to have missed. In Martin’s biography, Johnson becomes so dark and stormy, so beset by sin and fringed by insanity, that he might as well be a full-fledged romantic hero, a Captain Ahab spearing china whales. This view is not exactly false, but it is falsely stressed. That his sanity was won against a sea of troubles, in a “life radically wretched,” as he described it, doesn’t alter the reality that it is his sanity that we love him for: he was his own whale, and brought himself home.

Still, there was one large topic upon which Boswell cannot be relied. It is Johnson’s relation to Hester Thrale—the woman he lived with, whom he loved, and who wrote the only contemporaneous account that gives a credibly different picture of what the great man was like. Meyers, to his credit, tries to look frankly at the evidence about their peculiar erotic relation. The result is to make Johnson even more of a personality, and less of a pedant; he emerges as a man of passion and pain, given and taken, a professor of desire.

Samuel Johnson arrived in London in March of 1737, at the age of twenty-seven. He was escaping from a failed effort to run a country school, along with his prize pupil, a twenty-year-old would-be actor named David Garrick. Although Garrick made his way to the stage, and to stardom, in short order, Johnson had no luck in his dream, of becoming a London writer and wit, for a very long time. He had the misfortune to have arrived in London in a time not unlike this one, with the old-media dispensation in crisis and the new media barely paying. The practice of aristocratic patronage, in which big shots paid to be flattered by their favorite writers, was ebbing, and the new, middle-class arrangement, where plays and novels could command real money from publishers, was not yet in place. The only way to make a living was to publish, for starvation wages, in the few magazines that had come into existence. Johnson worked as a miscellaneous journalist, carrying his clips around and begging for assignments. In his first years, he wrote translations from the French and from the classics, brief popular lives of military men, and pamphlets mocking the government. Then he found work as an all-purpose rewrite man at the Gentleman’s Magazine. He always remembered how grateful he was to find an inn where he could get a decent meal for half a shilling. (The new order had also produced a permanently bitter and underemployed class of writers, who had meant to be Popes but were left to be merely beggars in the square outside, and they made their living working for penny-a-line pamphlets and cheap gossip tabloids, creating a constant mouse scream of malice that runs in counterpoint to Johnson’s grave sonorities.) He left a wife behind in his native town of Lichfield, a widow who was considerably older, and whom he had once imagined wowing with his London triumphs.

The one good thing about these years was that whatever tendency to pedantry Johnson had was knocked out of him. As a boy, he had been a kind of prodigy, pressed forward by his overeager father, a bookseller; a brief stay at Oxford, at a time when it was still very much a rich boys’ school, had left him embittered, and that short time as a failed country schoolmaster had not made him happier. But in London he became friends with real writers, neither dons nor lowlifes but men who wrote for a hard living: Richard Savage, the passionate, charismatic, and sometimes homeless poet who had the exquisite manners of the misplaced aristocrat he claimed to be; the bizarre fraud George Psalmanazar, who pretended to have been raised in Formosa and who had invented a Formosan language; printer’s devils and booksellers and players, like Thomas Sheridan (Richard’s father) and, later, Samuel Foote. Rather touchingly, Johnson took them all at their own estimation, valuing Psalmanazar as a sage and taking seriously Savage’s ridiculous claim to be the long-neglected heir of a countess. He wasn’t neglected; one of his first published poems, “London,” which tried to anatomize the shock of his arrival in the city, got the approval and endorsement of Pope—as though a young man arriving in New York were to have his first novel blurbed by Philip Roth. But kind words buttered no parsnips.

Johnson’s political philosophy, a combination of authoritarian politics, charitable impulses, anti-imperialism, and Christian faith, was forged on the streets and in the garrets and through that life as a grinder in the seventeen-thirties and forties; despite what some biographers have suggested, it was not dreamed up afterward, in comfort. His was a hungry man’s hard-hearted view of life, more like Merle Haggard’s conservatism than like his later friend Edmund Burke’s. The self-classified reformers, Johnson insisted, are in pursuit of only their own narrow interests, not those of the common people. He loved to tell the story of challenging Mrs. Macaulay, “a great republican,” to prove her sincerity about social equality by asking her footman to dine at her table. (“She has never liked me since. Sir, your levellers wish to level down as far as themselves; but they cannot bear levelling up to themselves.”) Life is hard, and there is little that government can do to make it easier. No one was less paternalistic, or puritanical, about the poor and their pleasures than Johnson: give them all the gin and fairgrounds they want, they have little enough else, God knows. (“Life is a pill which none of us can bear to swallow without gilding; yet for the poor we delight in stripping it still barer.”) In the two sets of occasional essays that he wrote in the seventeen-fifties—“The Rambler” and “The Idler”—a pet theme is that government, good and ill, is at a remove from actual life. As he wrote, in lines that he sneaked into his friend Oliver Goldsmith’s poem “The Traveller,” “How small, of all that human hearts endure, / That part which law or kings can cause or cure.”

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