When you major in what is called "English" at college, certain inconvenient figures present themselves. One is Ben Jonson who is inconvenient because it is so much more rewarding and taxing to spend your time on Shakespeare, although Jonson also was a major dramatist during Shakespeare's day.
Another inconvenient figure is William Blake, the poet often grouped with the "Romantics," but clearly not one of them and a study unto himself, sui generis, one of a kind. If you're going to study Blake, you have to take him on whole and in extenso, not side-by-side with anyone.
An easier figure of inconvenience in some ways, but deceptively so, is the titanic figure of Samuel Johnson (1709-1784). He's inconvenient because he was protean-a poet, a lexicographer, a critic, a dramatist, an essayist, a biographer, and some things I've not doubt left out--letter-writer, for instance.
On top of all that comes the extensive biography of Johnson written by his young friend, James Boswell, which is either the best or the worst way to get to know Johnson.
For decades I decided it would be the worst way to get to know him. The Johnson I spent most time on in college was Johnson the critic of Shakespeare. Having just taken a look back what I then read, my recollection proves correct: he was an uncommonly astute, forthright, plain-spoken critic. He points out all the plot flaws in Hamlet the play, for example, without diminishing the enigmatic genius of Hamlet the character for whom the play is known.
Johnson wrote to be read and had either the self-confidence or temerity to believe that by criticizing Shakespeare for his flaws, he actually built up his strengths.
But last week I decided to take on volume 1 of Boswell on Johnson, and now I've finished it, or perhaps I should say half-finished it because, to my surprise, it ends with a huge quantity of appendices and footnotes, and I have never in my life enjoyed reading appendices, footnotes, or introductions either by some notable editor or the author himself. In one case, Nabokov's Pale Fire, I know I've cut myself out of the fun, but that's pretty much the exception. My rule is that if it's important, it's in the text; if not, not…ignore it.
The Johnson Boswell presents--and he presents him well--is exactly the sprawling figure who doesn't fit comfortably in any multi-author syllabus. He wrote for a living for decades, never stopped writing, and when it came to producing a one-author dictionary of the English language (a task for which the French or Italians would assign forty scholars), he would do that, too.
He was Addison and Steele, a bit of Pope, a Boswell himself to many other authors, and something of a Dostoevsky in that like Dostoevsky he produced his own newspapers from time to time, writing the copy from first word to last.
I don't recommend you pick up your very own copy of Boswell on Johnson unless it's been standing unread on your shelf since undegraduate days. Then perhaps you'll find value in considering the kinds of giants who once walked the earth and are very difficult to conjure in the present day.
From childhood on Johnson read, recalled what he read, and formed astute opinions about what he read. He was a principal figure in the Age of Reason, but not an idealist, with one exception. His preferred mode of analysis was from the specific to the general. He thought that gave a truer, if less sweet, account of reality. Where he wandered into idealism, it seems to me, was in his Christianity. Flummoxed by mortality, unable to puzzle out its ultimate purposes, he happily enough left the hard work of determining why we are here to God.
Today we have one literary figure who idolizes Samuel Johnson. That is Harold Bloom, who considers Johnson his guide and master. Multi-talented himself, Bloom does exhibit Johnson's astonishing erudition and productivity. Reading Bloom's book on Shakespeare, I recall, was like having an extended conversation with a better literary friend than I've had in person. I also recall how much the leading Shakespeare critics of our day hated what he'd written. Why? Because Bloom focused on character, because Bloom explored Shakespeare's language and worldview…because Bloom wouldn't bow down to the recent pseudo-scientific schools of literary criticism that have, pardon the pun, bloomed and wilted one after another over the last twenty-five years.
What I like in particular about Johnson as Boswell presents him are the following:
--He often took the opposite side of an argument not because it was his but for the fun of it;
--He was a lifelong depressive, given to deep fits of dark despair;
--He was a compulsive-obsessive: he never crossed a threshold with the wrong foot, and if he was about to, he retreated and took another shot at it;
--He had the wisdom to observe that as you grow older, your friends die off, so you better make a point of getting some new, younger friends…and quick.
--He was a loyal, generous, talkative, discursive friend;
--He was a giant of his age and regarded himself as a pygmy;
--He castigated himself for his unstructured reading habits…but made up for them by reading everything;
--He was a big, disheveled, goofy guy with tics galore who cocked his head sideways when he was making a point and upon doing so sometimes had to huff and puff to catch his breath;
--When he made a mistake, as he did in his definition of a horse's pastern, he attributed it to "ignorance," and made nothing more of it, not defensive at all;
--And he almost never shot back at someone who criticized him; he'd had his say, let them have theirs. (Never complain, never explain as Disraeli put it.)
So all this is why I call Samuel Johnson inconvenient. He was a prolific genius who took literature seriously enough to give his life to it. In literary studies we won't really come upon someone like him until Coleridge in his later-life talkative mode. But when we get to Coleridge as undergraduates, as you'll recall, we group him comfortably among the "Romantics," and we tend to ignore the inconvenience of his having continued to to busy himself with the philosophical dimensions of literature for decades after his poet's pen had run dry.
For more of my comments on literature, see Tuppence Reviews (Kindle).
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