A Critic at Large

Man of Fetters

Dr. Johnson and Mrs. Thrale.

by Adam Gopnik December 8, 2008

Johnson could be rough with Hester Thrale in conversation, but his letters hint at his distinctly masochistic tastes.

Johnson could be rough with Hester Thrale in conversation, but his letters hint at his distinctly masochistic tastes.

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.

ILLUSTRATION: Ralph Steadman
“Man of Fetters” continues
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