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Remembering Samuel Johnson

Today marks the 304th anniversary of Samuel Johnson's birth. This piece, originally published in The New Republic, explains how Johnson's life, the subject of perhaps the most famous biography in history, "is a portrait of his century."

How can one write a "new" biography of Samuel Johnson? It has been written many times, and almost all that is discoverable about him has been discovered. The later part of his life was recorded in unequalled detail by Boswell, Thrale and Burney. The earlier part of it was screwed out of him by his contemporaries, and during the last 150 years it has been enormously added to by scholars like Percy Laithwaite and Aleyn Lyell Reade. The great editors of Yale and Oxford have published many volumes in which a few lines of the original text float on a sea of footnotes. History has already done justice to Samuel Johnson. Is there anything more to be said?

Yes, there is, as there is about Shakespeare, Thomas Jefferson, Napoleon and a few others, because the material, being so huge, needs digesting and re-digesting. The gargantuan repast can stand constant sub-division into new courses. One welcomes a reminder, at least once a decade, of the personality and achievement of this astonishing man, a reassessment of his contribution to literature and thought, and a renewed acquaintance with the things he wrote and said. He was the most modern man who lived two centuries ago. His statements and judgments, on literature, on politics, on religion, on conduct, are as relevant today as when they were uttered. Professor Bate writes on his first page of "the immense reassurance he gives to human nature,” and on his last that Johnson gave the world "the most precious of all the gifts one can give to another, and this is hope." Johnson is not simply a man who said amusing things, but the greatest moralist the English-speaking world has known, the gad-fly with the sharpest sting. That is why his life is more important than that of almost any other writer. A moralist comes to certain conclusions because of his experience. We need to know what that experience was, and how his teaching conformed or conflicted with the way he behaved.

Besides that, Dr. Johnson's life is a portrait of his century. We know more about him than we can learn about the lives even of our own fathers. There are few secrets (and he tried to keep several) which have not yielded to research or inspired guesswork. We can see him in every mood, reacting to most forms of human tribulation, and discover just what it was like to be alive two centuries ago, in every class of society, in a small provincial town like Lichfield, among the beggars, criminals and hack-writers of a stinking London, in its drawing rooms, its ghettos, in the Universities, in Devon lanes and Hebridean bothies, as we can never learn from Horace Walpole or Lord Chesterfield, who were born into an exclusive class and never had to struggle, as Johnson did, for recognition or the means for bare survival. 

His life was a success story. Today few people appear to us to have been more solidly established, but this is because his great contemporaries wrote of him when he was in his sixties and older. For more than two-thirds of his life he went through hell. He was reduced so low in means and spirit that at least twice he contemplated suicide, was twice arrested for debt, and was twice on the verge of insanity. It was only when he accepted a small pension from the state and met the Thrales, that he enjoyed any degree of security. Grant him every quality with which we associate his name—honesty, brilliance, perseverance, originality and often kindness—but the greatest of all is that which is generally ignored, his indomitable courage in working his way upwards through an inhospitable world in which envy, snobbishness and malice combined to keep a good and great man locked into the humble position from which his social superiors considered that he should never have emerged.

This biography is written with intense admiration. Professor Bate loves the man, and with reason. He makes us love him too. He has adopted Johnson's own method in writing the Lives of the Poets, "biography united with specific critical analysis of the writer's works and of the tone and character of his mind." Thus the book contains the main facts of Johnson's life culled from the abundant primary sources and studies like James L. Clifford's Young Samuel Johnson, but he is careful not to draw too heavily on them (for instance, there is no record here of Johnson's historic meeting with Flora Macdonald in Skye), and he will often prefix Johnson's best sayings with the words "well-known" or "famous," as if apologizing, unnecessarily, for treading trodden ground. Always returning to Johnson's character and writings, he makes us live and grow with his genius. There are excellent chapters on the Dictionary, on The Vanity of Human Wishes, on the Rambler and Rasselas, the edition of Shakespeare, on Johnson's religious and political principles, on his attitude to contemporary society, and constantly, with a psychoanalyst's perception, on his states of mind, which ranged from schoolboy exhilaration to a despair that few men can have experienced.

Professor Bate writes easily; perhaps this means that he reads easily. His book is well engineered, its pistons are well oiled. It runs fast and smooth on rubber tires. It attracts on the first page, and continues to attract for 600 more, partly because it is about Dr. Johnson, and partly because it is written by W. Jackson Bate. He has caught something of Johnson's own wisdom and manner. "There is enough pride in the human heart to prevent our seeking the acquaintance of those by whom we are certain to be neglected." "With every sentence one writes, one part of the divided self is dragging another to the bar of self-judgment." Such ideas are worthy of Dr. Johnson himself, newly minted and expressed with a conciseness that demands and deserves a second reading. He is an analytical writer, a scholar careful of his facts, a thinker who conveys thought concretely, a biographer who can vary pace, like a stream which now runs bubbling over pebbles, now flows deep and slow, now moves onwards to a little waterfall. He has the art to compel attention, to make his reader feel what he feels, and to induce him to want more from the person who proves himself best qualified to tell it. It is a didactic book, in the best sense. Without preaching, it instructs. It lets down bucket after bucket into a deep pool, bringing each in turn brimming to the surface.

And what a pool! Professor Bate is insistent that Samuel Johnson should not be regarded as a mere coiner of a quotable phrase. He regrets that Boswell's Life and Mrs. Thrale's Anecdotes should have stamped him as a faiseur de paradoxe (though he does not use the term) to the neglect of his written achievement. Constantly he brings us back from what Johnson said to what Johnson wrote. Johnson spun his talk from the surface of his experience: he delved into it for his writing. But his talk was compulsive. His friends flung subjects at him like bait to fish, as Plato did to Socrates. What did Dr. Johnson think about a second marriage? "It represented the triumph of hope over experience." What did he think about marital conversation? "A man is generally better pleased when he has a good dinner upon his table than when his wife talks Greek." Pressed to say whether Herrick or Smart was the better poet, he replied, "There is no settling the point of precedence between a louse and a flea." Or his definition of wit: "The unexpected copulation of ideas." Or the tedium of people who talk about the weather: "You are telling us that of which none but men in a mine or a dungeon can be ignorant."

I must not anthologize Professor Bate's reluctant anthology, for this is biography in its truest sense, one man's view of another's life and mental development. It is not always free from special pleading. How, for example, does he treat Johnson's strange marriage? Grotesquely, he married a woman of small intelligence, many years older than himself, who later took to drink. Did he marry her for money? Professor Bate thinks not. But he needed her money desperately, and spent it foolishly, and before the first year was up, separated from her to live "as a kind of adult waif." Later he returned to her, from duty, one imagines, not from love or desire, but was inconsolable when she died, with remorse. Was his affection for Mrs. Thrale wholly genuine? "Her learning," he once said, "is that of a schoolboy in one of the lower forms."  C.E. Vulliamy in his biography of her describes her as "A dreadful, garrulous old woman," and Mr. Thrale as a dull and inarticulate man who enjoyed good cooking. In Professor Bate's eyes, Johnson adored both. Was it sycophancy, for the sake of a comfortable bed and regular meals? He does not explore these alternatives. He always takes Johnson's side. He describes the Thrales as "a real family, one that could at least help fill his heart." Johnson was capable of gratitude, and prided himself on good manners, which made some of his friends laugh. But he could say different things to different people, and though he subjugated himself to "immense self-flagellation" (Professor Bate's words), he could crush others with sulphuric reprimand. How can he be blamed, after so harrowed a youth and so difficult a middle age, for seeking security and comfort at the cost of a little compromise and flattery? Though he hammered falsehood and insincerity, he was not himself immune to either. After reading so splendid an apologia as this, one can excuse and even welcome a touch of arrogance and selfishness in so great a man.