Sunday, September 18, 2016

Birthday: "Integrity without knowledge is weak and useless, and knowledge without integrity is dangerous and dreadful."


Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)
Poet, novelist, editor, essayist, critic, lexicographer
(unfinished portrait of Johnson, at 70, by James Barry, above)

Son of a bookseller, Samuel Johnson was an awkward, ungainly, strikingly unattractive man who, by sheer effort, made himself into one of the foremost men of letters in the English language.

He managed a year at Pembroke College, Oxford, but when his funds ran out he left without a degree and walked to London with his friend, the actor David Garrick. He made a hand-to-mouth living as a journalist and writer, but it was a threadbare existence. Royalties and copyright protections were unknown. You got paid a flat fee for your work and if it sold really well, your publisher made the money. If others pirated it, they made money.

Having married a widow much his senior, he enjoyed a happy life with her before she died in 1752. In between writing gigs, he tried his hand at school teaching, but without a degree it was hard going getting a headship. He applied for an honorary MA from Oxford in 1738; they turned him down flat. He pulled his few strings to reach Jonathan Swift, hoping to get an honorary degree from Trinity College, Dublin he could bring back to Oxford. Swift did nothing.

From 1746 to 1755 he toiled on a great project: a dictionary of the English language, demonstrating the evolution of word meaning with examples drawn from literature. Once finished, the dictionary was a critical success but, priced at nearly $550 in today's money, it took years to turn a profit.

“When it was done”, The Writer’s Almanac notes, “the Dictionary of the English Language had over 42,773 entries and was 20 inches wide when opened. It weighed almost 21 pounds and was one of the largest books ever printed. Samuel Johnson pronounced it ‘Vasta mole superbus (Proud in its great bulk).’”

His advance for the Dictionary long spent, Johnson launched a broadsheet, The Rambler, for which he wrote nearly all the copy, between 1750 and 1752. He was imprisoned for debt twice after the dictionary came out, but as its significance be more fully appreciated, his fortunes began to turn. Oxford granted him the honorary MA in 1755; he became the “Doctor Johnson” of legend after his alma mater gave him the higher degree in 1765.

In 1762 the King granted his a life pension of 300 pounds a year, which eased the constant need to produce. Still, he launched two more periodicals, The LIterary Magazine (1756-58) and The Idler (1758-60); published a philosophical novel, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia- still in print- in 1759; after ten years’ labor, an edition of Shakespeare’s plays in 1765; a survey of the great poets of Britain in 1781. He ghost-wrote years of parliamentary debates so compelling they were taken as verbatim transcripts; sermons, law lectures for a friend who landed an Oxford professorship he wasn’t really up to; and political tracts. As one profile observed of Johnson’s legendary bad luck,
He even wrote a play, Irene, which had a successful run (1749), but was never performed anywhere, ever again, until 1999, making it the most unsuccessful play ever written by a major author.

Johnson, his his part, was more practical. “No man but a blockhead,” he famously observed, “ever wrote, but for money.”

Johnson never forgot his humble origins; having for years felt guilty for refusing to man his father’s book stall because he thought he had outgrown that sort of thing, he returned to the spot, an adult, and stood in the rain for a day, jeered by passersby, as penance. In his old age he accumulated a menagerie of eccentric live-in companions: Mrs. Desmoulins, his godfather’s widowed daughter; Anna Williams, a blind poet who ruled the house;  Dr. Levet, a quack; Poll Carmichael, a streetwalker, and his personal servant, a Jamaican called Francis Barber- a slave freed at 12 when his master died- to whom Johnson left his estate. He spent rowdy nights in the streets with a troubled, oft-jailed poet, Richard Savage, whose life Johnson rescued from obscurity with a biography.

Johnson would have died a significant figure in British literary history on the strength of his work and his fortuitous friendships: Edmund Burke, Joshua Reynolds, David Garrick, Oliver Goldsmith, Edward Gibbon, and Adam Smith are among their number in the famous dining club he started to relieve his being widowed. But his name endures the world ‘round because a spoiled 22 year-old Scotsman, James Boswell, contrived to meet all the great men of London.

At their first meeting, in a bookseller’s, Johnson brushed him off in his usual gruff manner, but something clicked, and “Bozzy” was one of Johnson’s closest companions for the rest of the old man’s life. The degree of familiarity Johnson gave the young fop startled and irked his friends: Boswell rifled through Johnson’s diaries and papers when the old man was out, and so assiduously recorded Johnson’s words and activities even his subject remarked “one might have thought he was hired to spy on me.” One reviewer recalls, “People wanted to keep their distance from Boswell, fearing that he might record even their most off-hand comments.”

Boswell’s Life of Johnson, published in 1791, transformed the art of biography and brought to life the day to day world in which Johnson lived. Boswell captures his humor as well as his tendency to be the last word on every subject (second marriages, he said, were the triumph of hope over experience; in a discussion of Bishop Berkeley’s theory that existence is but perception, he kicked a large stone; his foot recoiling, he declared, “I refute it thus!”).

Generally considered a wastrel, an idiot and a womanizer (his constant VD cures make terrifying reading his his journals), Boswell had this one great thing in him, the like of which has proven almost impossible to replicate:

Johnson himself was a biographer, but the point of his work was to use the subject to be an example, make a point, or serve as a moral example. In his biographical technique, Boswell wished to allow the subject to speak for himself, and this was the reason the reason why he was so assiduous in taking notes, checking facts, and replicating dialogue. Sisman demonstrates effectively in his study that we might never have such a biography again, given the close relationship between Boswell and Johnson for two decades, and Boswell's prodigious memory and dedication to copious note taking. Building the biography around scenes in Johnson's life required an accurate and detailed accounting of Johnson's words and conversations (otherwise it would be an exercise in fiction), and that is precisely what Boswell had available to him.

Johnson’s posthumous fame has guaranteed the immortality of his work, and its accessibility has endured for generations. His constant struggles with procrastination and writer’s block, his self-doubt and endless self-criticism, often expressed in prayers and annual self-appraisals, are inspirations for the troubled in every age. His prose style, with its long, balanced considerations of one thing, then another, and luminous critical insights, can be seen in the works of Winston Churchill (both of whom also referred to their bouts of depression as “the black dog”). The Yale standard edition of Johnson’s works, launched in 1958 and planned to end with nine volumes in 1960, is now on its thirtieth volume, sixty years on.

Late in life, Boswell persuaded Johnson to travel with him in the Scottish Highlands, hoping to show off his homeland and ease some of the Doctor’s standard-issue Tory prejudices toward the Scots. In one tavern, a barmaid, on a bet, plopped into the surprised Johnson’s lap and planted a big kiss on his famously ugly face. “Pray, do it again,” Johnson exclaimed, “and let us see who tires of it first.”

His last years were troubled. His household members died, one by one; his health failed; his patrons, the Thrales- a wealthy couple who pampered him endlessly at their country place- went broke, and Mrs Thrale remarried- in Johnson’s view- badly. He died in December 1784, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. Mrs Thrale was jealous of Boswell; her copy of the Life has been republished in facsimile, with her irritated comments in the margins of every page.

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