On Saturday, July 30, Dr Johnson and I took a sculler at the Temple-stairs, and set out for Greenwich. I asked him if he really thought a knowledge of the Greek and Latin languages an essential requisite to a good education. JOHNSON. ‘Most certainly, sir; for those who know them have a very great advantage over those who do not. Nay, sir, it is wonderful what a difference learning makes upon people even in the common intercourse of life, which does not appear to be much connected with it.’ ‘And yet (said I) people go through the world very well, and carry on the business of life to good advantage, without learning.’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, sir, that may be true in cases where learning cannot possibly be of any use; for instance, this boy rows us as well without learning, as if he could sing the song of Orpheus to the Argonauts, who were the first sailors.’ He then called to the boy, ‘What would you give, my lad, to know about the Argonauts?’ ‘Sir (said the boy), I would give what I have.’ Johnson was much pleased with his answer, and we gave him a double fare. Dr Johnson then turning to me, ‘Sir (said he), a desire of knowledge is the natural feeling of mankind; and every human being, whose mind is not debauched, will be willing to give all that he has to get knowledge.’
How can we know Samuel Johnson without summoning him through the reanimating power of James Boswell’s Life? For the many scholars, writers, readers and collectors who call themselves Johnsonians, this is the near impossible task. Boswell first met Johnson in 1763, in the back parlour of a bookshop. It belonged to a friend of Johnson, Thomas Davies, who described ‘his aweful approach … somewhat in the manner of an actor in the part of Horatio, when he addresses Hamlet on the appearance of his father’s ghost, “Look, my Lord, it comes.”’ ‘Remember me’ was Boswell’s mandate from the start and the ghost’s injunction took on poignancy when the Life was published in 1791, seven years after Johnson’s death. Within its confines, the great man still lives.
Floating down the Thames on a pleasure trip, Boswell and Johnson are not idle, but engaged in the creative work of conversation. Typically, Boswell prompts Johnson with a seemingly spontaneous question: is classical learning merely useless erudition? Insisting on the practical advantages of learning, Johnson turns the matter into a mini mock-epic. The young rower is identified with Orpheus, who accompanied the Argonauts on their voyage in pursuit of the Golden Fleece. Boswell’s Johnson, the great hero of letters, enlists the boy in an endorsement of the poet’s power and a pagan search for a prize which has biblical (or Miltonic) resonance: the natural human desire for knowledge, so powerful that anyone would give what he had to obtain it.
The aftermath of the Greenwich trip exemplifies some of Johnson’s favourite themes: the fleeting nature of human pleasures, the vanity of human wishes and the inevitability of moral failure. On the trip back to London, Johnson scolded Boswell, tired after sitting up all night transcribing their conversation, for his effeminate shivering in the cold night air. They ended the evening at the Turk’s Head coffee house, talking of the Boswell estate in Scotland; Johnson, taken with the idea of staying in the family’s ‘romantick seat’, promised a visit. Nobody knew the rift between life and art better than Boswell (a melancholic who when he was not conversing with Johnson during that year, the first he spent in London, could often be found enjoying the women of the town); while Johnson declared writing’s sole end ‘to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it’. The divide between the strict morality demanded of art and the sublunary chaos evinced by human behaviour was Johnson’s great subject, the way into the ‘infinite vacuity’ at the heart of things which Hester Thrale, Boswell’s rival both for Johnson’s affections and for biographical authority, identified as Johnson’s ‘favourite hypothesis and the general tenor of his reasonings’.
This vacuity was what divided the learned writer from the figure Johnson would come to champion in his literary criticism as the common reader. ‘Be not too hasty to trust or to admire the teachers of morality: they discourse like angels, but they live like men,’ the poet Imlac tells his pupil Rasselas. In what he chooses to see as the young boatman’s desire for learning, Johnson’s fantasy of the value of scholarly knowledge to common life is given momentary substance. This largely self-educated bookseller’s son, scarred by scrofula, partially blind and deaf, afflicted by obsessive thoughts as well as a constitutional melancholy which he claimed made him ‘mad all his life, at least not sober’, prone to compulsive movements, rituals and vocalisations (some have recently diagnosed him with Tourette’s syndrome), embodied singularity (that quintessential trait of Englishness) while attempting to write for a mass audience.
Boswell brackets Johnson’s physical particularities off from his narrative, but for David Nokes they become a central feature of his ability to create a ‘shock effect’. Thus William Hogarth’s first encounter with Johnson at the home of Samuel Richardson:
While he was talking, he perceived a person standing at a window in the room, shaking his head and rolling himself about in a strange ridiculous manner. He concluded that he was an idiot whom his relations had put under the care of Mr Richardson, as a very good man. To his great surprise, however, this figure stalked forwards to where he and Mr Richardson were sitting, and … displayed such a power of eloquence, that Hogarth looked at him with astonishment, and actually imagined that this idiot had been at the moment inspired.
One of the great strengths of Nokes’s biography (which at times works like a novel, using free indirect discourse to enter into the consciousness of Johnson and other characters) is his original reading of Johnson as capable of exploiting the contrast between his ‘appearance – shaking, twitching, pockmarked … and distinctly careless about his dress’ and his ‘remarkable powers of locution’.
Nokes focuses throughout on Johnson’s independence, his taking control of situations that threatened to render him powerless. The book begins with Johnson’s cold reception at Pembroke College when he returned to Oxford in 1754 in order to consult some books there before completing his Dictionary. He had left the university in 1729 after just over a year’s residence because he couldn’t pay the bills and wondered, Nokes says, ‘whether, at the last moment, his own university might disown him’ by refusing him an honorary degree with which to adorn the Dictionary’s title page. Nokes links this fear of refusal to Johnson’s own refusal of Lord Chesterfield’s offer of patronage of the Dictionary:
Is not a Patron, My Lord, one who looks with unconcern on a Man struggling for Life in the water and when he has reached ground encumbers him with help. The notice which you have been pleased to take of my Labours, had it been early, had been kind; but it has been delayed till I am indifferent and cannot enjoy it, till I am solitary and cannot impart it, till I am known and do not want it.
Johnson’s honorary MA arrived a fortnight later. Chesterfield responded to the letter with good humour, Nokes says, ‘commending the “severest passages”, noting “how well they were expressed”’. Nokes’s reading of the phrase ‘till I am solitary’ is shrewd: ‘The loss of his wife Tetty became a weapon Johnson could use. While she had been alive he was always wary of offending those with powers to damage him; now that she was dead, he became more outspoken, audacious even, turning what had previously been a mere grumble into a clear voice of independence.’ Nokes does not treat Tetty kindly, describing Johnson’s marriage to this much older widow, who saw past his physical oddity to ‘the most sensible man that I ever saw in my life’, as a loveless matter of money. Johnson himself declared it, according to Boswell, a ‘love marriage on both sides’. Tetty spent her last years largely bedridden and in a haze of opium and alcohol: for Nokes she exemplifies the human vanities Johnson dissected in the Rambler.
The publication of the Dictionary marked a watershed in Johnson’s career, but fame did not bring fortune. He continued to struggle financially until the prompting of the popular press and an anonymous letter to Lord Bute led to a pension from the king in 1762. Too poor to complete his Oxford degree though more learned than his tutor, Johnson, like Richard Savage, his friend and the subject of his first biography, ‘having no profession, became by necessity an author’.
Johnson begins his Life of Savage, published in 1744, with what we have come to recognise as characteristically authoritative uncertainty:
It has been observed in all ages that the advantages of nature or of fortune have contributed very little to the promotion of happiness; and that those whom the splendour of their rank or the extent of their capacity have placed upon the summits of human life, have not often given any just occasion to envy in those who look up to them from a lower station: whether it be that apparent superiority incites great designs, and great designs are naturally liable to fatal miscarriages; or that the general lot of mankind is misery, and the misfortunes of those whose eminence drew upon them an universal attention have been more carefully recorded, because they were more generally observed, and have in reality been only more conspicuous than those of others, not more frequent, or more severe.
The universal survey would become one of Johnson’s favourite opening gambits – ‘Let Observation with extensive View,/Survey Mankind from China to Peru,’ The Vanity of Human Wishes begins, driving Coleridge to gloss it as ‘Let observation with extensive observation observe mankind extensively’ – but its comprehensiveness is in the service of indeterminacy. The first sentence of the Life of Savage performs an elaborate balancing act, making equations and distinctions between nature and fortune, rank and capacity, the particular sufferings of those doomed to ambition by ‘apparent superiority’ and universal human misery. In another Johnsonian hallmark, the choice of the passive voice and the persistence of personified abstraction means that agency is abdicated by author and subject alike. In this story of a dissolute hack writer who proclaimed himself the bastard son of an earl, author for hire and volunteer laureate, the hero is at once martyr to fortune and his own worst enemy. Johnson deplores Savage for his disregard of the ‘common maxims of life’, but declares those to be ‘no proper judges of his conduct who have slumbered away their time on the down of plenty’.
The same tension between ‘superior capacities or attainments’ and unlettered humanity on display in the conversation with the boy at Greenwich leads in the Life of Savage to inevitably tragic ends. The poet who thinks he is above the literary marketplace, the young Oxford scholar in search of fame in The Vanity of Human Wishes whose reward is ‘Toil, Envy, Want, the Patron, and the Jail’: they both come to the same end. ‘No man but a blockhead,’ Johnson repeatedly stated, ‘ever wrote, except for money.’ ‘I will write a sermon for thee,’ he told a friend, a ‘clergyman of some eminence’, ‘but thou must pay me for it.’ His own ambition was therefore largely and paradoxically determined by commission. His status as Great Cham of letters, equally paradoxically, rested on a great deal of anonymous writing: in addition to sermons preached by others, there were the law lectures ascribed to Robert Chambers, the parliamentary debates he ‘altered and disguised’ from others’ notes and published as ‘Debates in the Senate of Lilliput’ in the Gentleman’s Magazine, and the ‘Last Solemn Declaration’ of Dr Dodd, the ‘macaroni parson’, who was hanged for forgery.
Johnson’s style was as distinctive as his body, transforming the King’s English – which in his Dictionary he regulated, mapped and ultimately failed to control – into his own Latinate philosophical hybrid. He said of the first series of moral essays, published under the eidolon of ‘the Rambler’, that while his other writings were ‘wine and water’, his Rambler was ‘pure wine’, a sentiment Boswell respectfully qualified when he wrote that ‘it must, indeed, be allowed, that the structure of his sentences is expanded, and often has somewhat of the inversion of Latin; and that he delighted to express familiar thoughts in philosophical language; being in this the reverse of Socrates, who, it was said, reduced philosophy to the simplicity of common life.’ Johnson justified his own practice in the final essay of the series: ‘When common words were less pleasing to the ear, or less distinct in their signification, I have familiarised the terms of philosophy, by applying them to popular ideas.’ Yet Hester Thrale remarked that the essays in the Rambler were ‘express’d … in a Style so natural to him, and so much like his common mode of conversing, that I was myself not much astonished when he told me, that he had scarcely read over one of those inimitable Essays before they were sent to the Press.’ Stories of Johnson’s rapid composition and the prose-like quality of his conversation abound, and though, in his edition of Hawkins’s Life, O.M. Brack corrects Hawkins by reminding us how frequently and carefully Johnson revised his work, his readers persist in conflating art with life by imagining him thinking, speaking and writing in perfect print-ready copy.
Peter Martin’s introduction to the tercentenary edition of Selected Writings sets up an echo chamber of affirmations of Johnson’s eternal appeal ranging from Ruskin to Beckett to Seamus Heaney to that American avatar of Johnson, Harold Bloom, who places Johnson’s literary criticism within the ‘ancient genre of wisdom writing’. Focusing on only a ‘portion of Johnson … the moralist and critic’ (though he could be described as a moralist in almost all of his writings), Martin sees the Rambler as the heart of any Johnson collection: ‘In its cumulative comprehensiveness, the Rambler has been described as Johnson’s most representative single work chiefly because of its direct applicability to the human condition, to what Hamlet invoked as “the glory, jest, and riddle of the world”.’ In forgetting that it is Pope’s echo of Hamlet he is quoting, the punchline to the spectacular appraisal of human inconsistency at the beginning of Book II of The Essay on Man, Martin shows himself to be of the devil’s party without knowing it. Johnson loathed The Essay on Man, enraged by what he saw as its complacent acceptance of human suffering and by the inequity of the notion of the Great Chain of Being. Nokes is wrong to say that ‘irony was never Johnson’s strong point’: he distinguished himself from Pope by focusing on the ironies and injustices of the human condition without attempting to vindicate things as they were. ‘We are not to repine,’ he wrote in Rambler 32 on the ‘Vanity and Irrationality of Stoicism’, ‘but we may lawfully struggle; for the calamities of life, like the necessities of nature, are calls to labour and exercises of diligence.’
Boswell described ‘the high test of great writing’ as ‘when we do not consider the writer, and say, “Here Mr Johnson has done nobly”; but when what we read does so fill and expand our mind that the writer is admired by us instantaneously as … the soul of that writing, so that for a while we forget his personality and, by a reflex operation, perceive that it is Mr Johnson who is speaking to us.’ The author and scholar Catherine Talbot, writing to the poet and translator of Epictetus, Elizabeth Carter (and not, as Martin has it, the other way round), said of a piece of Johnson’s anonymous writing: ‘I discern Mr Johnson … as evidently as if I saw him through the keyhole with the pen in his hand.’ Just as his singularity enables intimacy, his attempts at anonymity increase the reader’s pleasure in finding him out. The reader shares the biographer’s curiosity as Johnson defined it in Rambler 60 and would practise it in Lives of the Poets, ‘to lead the thoughts into domestic privacies, and display the minute details of daily life’. Both reader and biographer (and it was the ‘biographical part’ of literature Johnson said he loved best) catch their subject at home, just as David Garrick had when, as the celebrity pupil of Johnson’s ill-fated school at Edial, he spied on his teacher’s ‘tumultuous and awkward fondness’ for Tetty. Turning what he’d seen to ridicule, the grown-up Garrick ‘by his exquisite talent of mimickry’, would ‘exhibit [Tetty] … so as to excite the heartiest bursts of laughter’. Boswell lets us look through that same keyhole in his Life, but he approaches it with reverence.
Philip Baruth’s riveting thriller The Brothers Boswell, which begins with Boswell’s description of the Greenwich trip, questions the fantasy of universal communion through print. In Baruth’s novel, Boswell’s mad brother, John, follows the two men that Saturday and spies on their conversation. When he hears the boy’s answer to Johnson, he marvels ‘at the ability of the river to teach every man on it, no matter how young, to cant so flawlessly’. This is not the river of life in Rasselas, its endless change the only truth that the story can offer, but the river of bitter experience and human deceit. The dream of universal knowledge, and a universally intelligible English, is exposed as cant, defined in Johnson’s Dictionary as ‘a corrupt dialogue used by beggars and vagabonds’, ‘a particular form of speaking peculiar to some certain class or body of men’, ‘a whining pretension to goodness, in formal and affected terms’, ‘barbarous jargon’. John scorns Boswell and Johnson’s fantasies of human goodness and curiosity. Abandoned by his brother and envious of his ‘playing Plato to Johnson’s Socrates’ in order ‘not merely to write a true romance but to live it as well’, John plots murderous revenge.
The figure of John dramatises a long history of competitive Johnsonian devotion. Boswell won the war of the biographers that contemporaries like John Wolcot deplored as ‘Johnsomania’, but however powerful the faith in Johnson that epitomises Boswell’s great work might be, it is matched by an equally fervent Johnsonian scepticism. Boswell’s narcissism had both illuminating and obscuring effects: his insistence in creating a reassuringly Tory father in an age of revolution has, for instance, distorted Johnson’s politics to the point of unrecognisability. (The scholar James Basker, to give one example, has convincingly discussed the strength of Johnson’s abolitionist sentiments as well as the emotional importance of his paternal relationship to his African servant, the former slave Francis Barber, sentiments Boswell worked hard to minimise.)
We might think of Sir John Hawkins – whose biography of Johnson appeared in 1787, four years before Boswell’s Life, and which had been unavailable to the general public in full for more than two centuries until Brack’s masterfully edited volume appeared – as the jealous brother with his own story to tell. The book’s obscurity is due in part to the systematic attacks of Boswell and others: uncertainty remains about whether Hawkins really, as Boswell claimed, stole a volume of Johnson’s diary while attending his deathbed, provoking Johnson’s outrage and demand for its return, but what is certain is that Hawkins’s dislike of Francis Barber, and his condemnation of Johnson’s generosity in leaving him an annuity of 70 pounds in his will, were to Boswell’s advantage. Boswell befriended Barber and acquired a good deal of Johnsoniana in the process. Hawkins, a digressive and turgid stylist of whom one contemporary reviewer said that there were plans for his book to be ‘translated into English’, is no Boswell, but his book, an early example of the ‘life and times’ mode of biography, is full of fascinating detail. While Boswell met Johnson in his late middle age and based his impressions on an infrequent series of meetings, Hawkins, a lawyer, magistrate, historian of music and above all devout Christian, knew Johnson all his life, serving as chief executor of his will (Boswell was left nothing) and at times as a spiritual confessor, who attempted to persuade Johnson of his salvation in his terrified final days. He makes no secret of his intention to both ‘abase’ and ‘exalt’ Johnson’s character in the service of truth, and has much to say about Johnson’s inconsistencies, his refusal of domestic restraints after his wife’s death, his extreme love of conviviality, his opium addiction, his sensory deprivation (a point he exaggerates), his talent for humour, his compassion, his melancholy, his fear of damnation and his valiant final words (in his account, the words of a Roman gladiator, ‘jam moriturus’). An early remark on Johnson’s disappointment at Oxford illuminates Hawkins’s usefulness:
He could not, at this early period of his life, divest himself of an opinion, that poverty was disgraceful; and was very severe in his censures of that economy in both our universities, which exacted at meals the attendance of poor scholars, under the several denominations of servitors in the one, and sizers in the other; he thought that the scholar’s, like the Christian life, levelled all distinctions of rank and worldly pre-eminence; but in this he was mistaken: civil policy had, long before his coming into the world, reduced the several classes of men to a regular subordination, and given servitude its sanction.
It is characteristic of Hawkins that he condones worldly subordination at the moment when he observes Johnson chafing against it in the name of Christian equality. Still, Hawkins’s book, as Brack puts it in a litany of quotations from the text, is above all ‘a spiritual journey, the story of a Johnson “whose whole life was a preparation for his death”, who struggled “to work out his salvation with fear and trembling”, one who “lived the life of the righteous” and whose “end was that of a Christian”’. Hawkins writes against the grain of many secular readers of Johnson, who even during his lifetime spread rumours that he was ‘a mere moralist’, dismissing the wit of an unknown and unnamed ‘female sceptic’ who said that ‘Dr Johnson was too great a philosopher to be a believer.’ It is Brack’s mission, one in which he succeeds and to which he brings his own tremendous learning, to rescue Hawkins from the infamy and unclubbability that has accompanied his name among Johnsonians ever since his book appeared.
In the last pages of The Brothers Boswell, a recovered John reflects on the remnants of truth that might remain in his recollections of madness and on the three lives of Johnson (by Hawkins, Thrale and that ‘genius’, his own brother) that appeared after Johnson’s death. Biography, he concludes, ‘has provided me with a comfort in my later years of the sort I was never able to discover in the Bible my mother gave me as a boy. Not the lie of fixed character that any biography tells in its own right, but the truth of multiplicity that they tell when taken together.’ Just such comfort is provided by sentences like this one, from Rambler 32: ‘I think there is some reason for questioning whether the body and mind are not so proportioned, that the one can bear all that can be inflicted on the other, whether virtue cannot stand its ground as long as life, and whether a soul well principled will not be separated sooner than subdued.’ Boswell never read this sentence ‘without feeling my frame thrill’.