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Dr Johnson owes his literary ‘Life’ to the vanity and friendship of James Boswell

Posted in English Literature, Historical articles, History, London, Scotland on Friday, 29 November 2013

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This edited article about English literature first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 470 published on 16 January 1971.

Boswell and Johnson, picture, image, illustration

Dr Johnson and the indefatigable Boswell in a Soho coffee shop

Coach doors slammed shut and lanterns were trimmed as the portly men descended from their padded seats and hurried across the dark pavement into the Turk’s Head, Gerard Street, in London’s Soho quarter.

Inside, the clock struck seven and supper began at a long table in a private room. The diners talked cheerfully and loudly and their talk was full of anecdotes and philosophies. Most of them were already famous; the rest would soon be so. There was Sir Joshua Reynolds, the painter and founder of this Literary Club, as it was called; Edmund Burke, the politician; Oliver Goldsmith, the playwright; David Garrick the actor, and many others.

And there was one hulk of a man, massively tall and broad, with a face scarred and disfigured by disease. By his side sat a Scotsman of pleasant looks who seemed to take most careful note of everything the other said.

Indeed, when the big man spoke, the Scotsman concentrated his whole attention upon him; “his eyes goggling with eagerness, he leaned his ear almost on the other’s shoulder, his mouth dropped open to catch every syllable, and he seemed to listen even to his breathings, as though they had some mystical significance.”

The speaker who commanded all this attention was Dr. Samuel Johnson, most celebrated of all the Literary Club’s members, and the enraptured listener was James Boswell, whose fame rests on his brilliant biography of Johnson.

At the time of the Literary Club’s formation in February, 1764, Johnson’s election to membership was chiefly through his literary skill. He had proved himself as a magazine writer and as the author of speeches for politicians. In 1738 he published a poem called London, and followed it with a play called Irene and a biography of a friend named Richard Savage. In 1747 he put up an idea for an English Dictionary, a scheme he had been nurturing for some time, which eventually took him seven years to complete.

Today none of these works are read, and they are scarcely known outside academic circles. Why, then, do we remember Johnson?

The answer is that as a conversationalist he was unrivalled in any age, and his eloquence is immortal. We owe the record of it to Boswell’s Life of Johnson.

Boswell was a man of absurd vanity who craved the indulgence of the famous. Once he wrote to Lord Chatham, the Prime Minister, “Could your lordship find time to honour me now and then with a letter? To correspond with a Chatham is enough to keep a young man ever ardent in the pursuit of virtuous fame.” All was redeemed, however, by his abundant good humour; few men could laugh more loudly at themselves than Boswell.

Johnson met Boswell in 1763, and for the rest of the doctor’s life the young Scotsman shadowed his master everywhere, noting everything he said and did, and recording it for Johnson’s immortal biography.

Through Boswell we learn everything of Johnson, and everything “Johnsonian.” “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money” is typically Johnsonian; so is, “He seldom lives frugally who lives by chance,” and “He who is tired of London is tired of life.”

The platform for Johnson’s eloquence was the Literary Club and the audience and fellow members were all his friends. They met regularly in the Turk’s Head and occasionally in coffee houses – the fashionable rendezvous of the eighteenth century – and talked and argued for hours at a time, with Johnson always making his voice heard above all the others.

Once the club was discussing actors, whereupon Johnson proclaimed that they were all “no better than dancing dogs.”

“But you will allow that some are better than others?” he was asked.

“Yes,” replied Johnson, “as some dogs dance better than others.”

In an argument he was king. “There is no arguing with him,” a friend said, “for if his pistol misses fire, he knocks you down with the butt end of it.”

Almost as famous as Johnson’s conversation was his eccentricity. He was a powerfully built man and physically strong with it. Once he picked up a chair at a theatre upon which a man had seated himself during Johnson’s temporary absence, and tossed it and its occupant into the Pit.

On another occasion, when a friend knocked at his door at 3 a.m., Johnson appeared in his night-clothes. Recognising the friend by candle-light he exclaimed, “Three a.m.! A good time for a frisk!” – and dressing, they went off together to the nearest coffee house.

Samuel Johnson was born in Lichfield, the son of a bookseller, in 1709. At Lichfield Grammar School he was a brilliant pupil. His powers of memory so impressed his fellow pupils that three of them used to call for him every morning and carry him triumphantly to school on their shoulders.

Pressure of family poverty forced Johnson into his father’s bookshop at 16, but his brain remained so active in gorging the contents of the books for sale that he won a place at Oxford. The end of his university career was brought about abruptly by the death of his father. The family business was bankrupt and Johnson’s inheritance was ¬£20 – all that he had in the world.

For a little while he tried work as a school usher – “complicated misery” he afterwards described it. For a little longer he kept the wolf from the door through marriage to a woman 20 years his senior who had some money. Mrs. Johnson was said to be fat with brightly painted cheeks and affected mannerisms, but Johnson never ceased to love her and spoke with great fondness of her long after her death.

Johnson’s generosity, too, was legendary. When going home to his Fleet Street rooms late at night he often passed poor children asleep on thresholds and stalls and always he would put a penny in their hands. Most of his small income he spent on the waifs and strays of London, several of whom filled his lodgings as permanent “guests” whom he supported.

Johnson had an obsessive fear of death. He believed he would be sent to hell and “punished everlastingly.” Death, he declared, must be dreadful to every reasonable man, and long before he died would not allow friends to console him with ideas about divine goodness. He died in 1784, and lies buried in Westminster Abbey.

* * *

Samuel Johnson’s writings are much inferior to his spoken utterances. With a pen in his hand Johnson became ponderous, using long words and too many of them, and the substance of his writings is sad and pessimistic.

It is on his dictionary that Johnson’s literary fame rests, and like most of his literature it is unknown today. All Johnson’s famous prejudices come through in his definitions – a pension is defined as “generally understood to mean pay given to a State hireling for treason to his country,” and patriotism is “the last refuge of a scoundrel.”

Johnson wrote more than 200 essays for a magazine called the “Rambler,” some of which deserve just a little attention. His political pamphlets and his “Journey to the Hebrides,” written after a Scottish tour with Boswell, have a certain historical interest.

The “Lives of the Poets” was the child of Johnson’s old age, and in it he combines with interesting effect both biography and criticism. The book is the only one he wrote in which there is a distinct reflection of Johnson’s talk.

In it, Johnson gives a vigorous summary of the main facts of his heroes’ lives, a pointed analysis of their character and a short criticism of their works. The style is easier and less cumbersome than in his earlier work and the strong, independent judgments make the book interesting even if many of its conclusions give cause for argument.

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