Monday, January 26, 2009

Samuel Johnson: One Of My People, Part II

After the publication of the Dictionary, Johnson entered what became the most famous stage of his life. Universities scrambled to honor him with degrees; it is from this time on that he became "Doctor" Johnson. The government honored him with a pension: it was this, not any money he might have made from selling his work, that allowed him to live an easier life. He began to be courted by society; Henry Thrale, a rich brewer, and his wife, Hesther, had him as a regular guest in their home, and the prescence of the literary lion lent the middle class family a certain cachet.

For all this, Johnson remained largely unchanged. When a lady asked him how he came to define a fetlock as a horse's ankle, he replied, "Sheer ignorance, madame." When another lady commented that she approved that he had left out the naughty words, he replied slyly, "What, my dear, you went looking for them?" Johnson's clothing and manner changed little with his new-found status. He was usually poorly and casually dressed and his manners, picked up while bolting his meals when he coul get them, caused adverse comment. Hesther Thrale remarked that it was a disgusting spectacle to see him eat "plum pudden".

Still, he was highly respected for his wide-ranging intelligence and as a moral philosopher. And he not only talked the talk, he walked the walk. Even before his success and pension, he was taking care of a stable of unfortunates: a poor spinster, a blind lady, an indigent physician who treated the even poorer for next to nothing. A special case was Francis Barber, an emancipated slave that was given into his care. Though "Frank" acted as a servant to him for many years, Johnson was in many ways his foster-father, paying for his wedding and making him his sole heir on his death. Johnson even bought oysters himself for his cat Hodges; oysters at the time were extremely common food eaten by the very poor, and he was afraid Frank would be embarrassed to be seen purchasing them. (At the time of the American Revolution, Johnson said that no-one was calling louder for liberty than the American slave-drivers). Johnson always had care and sympathy for the marginal and outcast of society.

But he also moved in the very highest circles of society. He engaged in controveries with the likes of Lord Monboddo, a sort of proto-Darwinist, and Adam Smith, the economist; he exposed the literary fraud of James McPherson's Ossian and investigated the Cock Lane Ghost. Joshua Reynolds, the age's pre-eminent painter, David Garrick, the pre-eminent actor, Oliver Goldsmith, the novelist and playwright, Edward Gibbons, the pre-eminent historian, were all members of The Literary Club, of which Johnson was the star ornament, and a personal friend of each. And into the middle of this came James Boswell.

Boswell was everything Johnson was not. He was young, aristocratic, well-dressed, dissolute, and Scottish. Johnson at that time had a well-known "animadversion" to the Scotch, and this made their first meeting a little awkward. However, Boswell was persistently pleasant and persevered, and soon they were getting along well. Boswell was trying to find his own way in the world, and felt that Johnson had the steadiness and gravitas he needed. Boswell was constantly asking him for personal advice, and questions about Johnson's early life, and even hypothetical questions to see how he would react. Boswell went so far as to take him on a journey to Scotland, which largely modified the older man's views. Boswell wrote it all down in his journals.

So it went to the end of Johnson's life. He wrote a little and talked a lot. He was a famous rambler, liked tea and lemon "squash", and loved his cats (there is now a statue of his cat, with the famed oyster shells, in London; people put coins in the shells: the money is collected to help stray cats). After his death Boswell composed and published his monumental "Life Of Johnson", that fixed the character of Johnson in the public mind forever and became a high water mark in biography. The next generation of writers, the Romantics, rejected his classical, orthodox views, however, and did much to foster the image of him as "The Great Bear", blinkered, ugly, and stilted, that still persists to this day.

But I would like to leave you with another image of Samuel Johnson, one that won my heart. A good friend of his, one Bennett Langton, recalled how, in Johnson's old age, they were walking at the top of a steep hill behind Langton's house. Johnson suddenly turned, looked at the slope, and announced that he was determined to take a roll down it. Despite all his friend could say to dissuade him, he emptied his pockets of anything that could fall out or hurt him, declaring he hadn't had a good roll in a long time. Then he laid himself parallel to the hillside and rolled all the way to the bottom.


AlanDP said...

An excellent pair of posts!

And now I finally understand what is meant when a person is referred to as someone's "Boswell."

Babel said...

The above painting looks like an illustration of "he struggled with poor eyesight for the rest of his life."
Excellent info entertainingly presented. More please!

Brer said...

This is the portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds (who painted Johnson at least 5 times) that got him into trouble. Sir Josh liked to paint people in natural, characteristic poses. In fact, he painted himself cupping his ear because he was a little deaf. When Johnson saw this painting he burst out in anger, saying that Reynolds could go down in history if he liked as Deaf Joshua, but he didn't want to be known to posterity as "Blinking Sam." And because of what the Doctor said, this picture has been known as "Blinking Sam" to this day.