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Old Dr. Johnson And His Boswell Post by :happynetsurf Category :Essays Author :George Hamlin Fitch Date :November 2011 Read :1403

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Old Dr. Johnson And His Boswell

HIS GREAT FAME DUE TO HIS ADMIRER'S BIOGRAPHY--BOSWELL'S
WORK MAKES THE DOCTOR THE BEST KNOWN LITERARY MAN OF
HIS AGE.


The last of the worthies of old English literature is Dr. Samuel Johnson, whose monumental figure casts a long shadow over most of his contemporaries. The man whom Boswell immortalized and made as real to us today as though he actually lived and worked and browbeat his associates in our own time, is really the last of the great eighteenth century writers in style, in ways of thought and in feeling. Gibbon, who was his contemporary, appears far more modern than Johnson because, in his religious views and in his way of appraising historical characters, the author of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was a hundred years in advance of his time. Dr. Johnson therefore may be regarded as the last of the worthies who have made English literature memorable in the eighteenth century, and his work may fittingly conclude this series of articles on the good old books.

Yet in considering Dr. Johnson's work we have the curious anomaly of a man who is not only far greater than anything he ever wrote, but who depends for his fame upon a biographer much inferior to himself in scholarship and in literary ability. The Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell Esquire is the title of the book that has preserved for us one of the most interesting figures in all literature. Commonly it is known as Boswell's Johnson. Though written over a hundred years ago, it still stands unrivaled among the world's great biographies.

Boswell had in him the makings of a great reporter, for no detail of Johnson's life, appearance, talk or manner escaped his keen eye, and for years it was his custom to set down every night in notebooks all the table talk and other conversation of the great man whom he worshiped. In this way Boswell gathered little by little a mass of material which he afterward recast into his great work. Jotted down when every word was fresh in his memory, these conversations by the old doctor are full of meat.

If Johnson was ever worsted in the wit combats that took place at his favorite club, then Boswell fails to record it; but hundreds of instances are given of the doughty old Englishman's rough usage of an adversary when he found himself hard pressed. As Goldsmith aptly put it: "If his pistol missed fire, he would knock you down with the butt end."

Samuel Johnson was the son of a book-seller of Litchfield. He was born in 1709 and died in 1784. His early education was confined to a grammar school of his native town. The boy was big of figure, but he early showed traces of a scrofulous taint, which not only disfigured his face but made him morose and inclined to depression. But his mind was very keen and he read very widely. When nineteen years of age he went up to Oxford and surprised his tutors by the extent of his miscellaneous reading.

His college life was wretched because of his poverty, and the historical incident of the youth's scornful rejection of a new pair of shoes, left outside his chamber door, is probably true. Certain it is that he could not have fitted into the elegant life of most of the undergraduates of Pembroke College, although today his name stands among the most distinguished of its scholars. In 1731 he left Oxford without a degree, and, after an unhappy experience as a school usher, he married a widow old enough to be his mother and established a school to prepare young men for college. Among his pupils was David Garrick, who became the famous actor. In 1737 Johnson, in company with Garrick, tramped to London. In the great city which he came to love he had a very hard time for years. He served as a publisher's hack and he knew from personal experience the woes of Grub-street writers.

His first literary hit was made with a poem, London, and this was followed by the Life of Richard Savage, in which he told of the miseries of the writer without regular employment. Next followed his finest poem, The Vanity of Human Wishes. Then Johnson started a weekly paper, The Rambler, in imitation of The Spectator, and ran it regularly for about two years. For some time Johnson had been considering the publication of a dictionary of the English language. He issued his prospectus in 1747 and inscribed the work to Lord Chesterfield. He did not secure any help from the noble lord, and when Chesterfield showed some interest in the work seven years after, Johnson wrote an open letter to the nobleman, which is one of the masterpieces of English satire. In 1762 Johnson accepted a Government pension of £300 a year, and after that he lived in comparative comfort. The best literary work of his later years was his Lives of the Poets, which extended to ten volumes.

Johnson was not an accurate scholar, nor was he a graceful writer, like Goldsmith; but he had a force of mind and a vigor of language that made him the greatest talker of his day. He was one of the founders of a literary club in 1764 which numbered among its members Gibbon, Burke, Goldsmith, Sir Joshua Reynolds and other famous men of genius. Though he was unpolished in manners, ill dressed and uncouth, Johnson was easily the leader in the debates of this club, and he remained its dominating force until the day of his death.


(Illustration (with text):

THE LIFE OF
SAMUEL JOHNSON, LL.D.

COMPREHENDING

AN ACCOUNT OF HIS STUDIES
AND NUMEROUS WORKS,
IN CHRONOLOGICAL ORDER;

A SERIES OF HIS EPISTOLARY CORRESPONDENCE
AND CONVERSATIONS WITH MANY EMINENT PERSONS,

AND

VARIOUS ORIGINAL PIECES OF HIS COMPOSITION,

NEVER BEFORE PUBLISHED.

THE WHOLE EXHIBITING A VIEW OF LITERATURE AND LITERARY MEN
IN GREAT-BRITAIN, FOR NEAR HALF A CENTURY,
DURING WHICH HE FLOURISHED.

IN TWO VOLUMES.
BY JAMES BOSWELL, Esq.


----Quò fit ut OMNIS
Votiva pateat veluti descripta tabella
VITA SENIS.---- HORAT.


VOLUME THE FIRST.

LONDON:
PRINTED BY HENRY BALDWIN,
FOR CHARLES DILLY, IN THE POULTRY.
M DCC XCI


FACSIMILE OF THE
TITLE PAGE OF THE FIRST EDITION OF BOSWELL'S
"LIFE OF SAMUEL JOHNSON"--THIS HAS
PROVED TO BE THE MOST POPULAR
BIOGRAPHY IN THE ENGLISH
LANGUAGE)


The best idea of Dr. Johnson's verse may be gained from London and The Vanity of Human Wishes. These are not great poetry. The verse is of the style which Pope produced, but which the modern taste rejects because of its artificial form. Yet there are many good lines in these two poems and they reflect the author's wide reading as well as his knowledge of human life. The Lives of the Poets are far better written than Johnson's early work, and they contain many interesting incidents and much keen criticism. These, with some of Johnson's prayers and his letter to Lord Chesterfield, include about all that the modern reader will care to go through.

The Chesterfield letter is a little masterpiece of satire. Johnson, it must be borne in mind, had dedicated the prospectus of his Dictionary to Chesterfield, but he had been virtually turned away from this patron's door with the beggarly gift of £10. For seven years he wrought at his desk, often hungry, ragged and exposed to the weather, without any assistance; but when the end was in sight and the great work was passing through the press, the noble lord deigned to write two review articles, praising the work. And here is a bit of Dr. Johnson's incisive sarcasm in the famous letter to the selfish nobleman:

"Is not a Patron, my Lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and, when he has reached ground, encumbers him with help? The notice which you have pleased to take of my labors, had it been early, had been kind; but it has been delayed till I am indifferent, and cannot enjoy it; till I am solitary, and cannot impart it; till I am known, and do not want it."

Of Boswell's Life of Dr. Johnson only a few words can be said. To treat it properly one should have an entire article like this, for it is one of the great books of the world. A good preparation for taking it up is the reading of the reviews of it by Macaulay and Carlyle. These two essays, among the most brilliant of their authors' work, give striking pictures of Boswell and of the man who was the dictator of English literature for thirty years. Then take up Boswell himself in such a handy edition as that in Everyman's Library, in two volumes. Read the book in spare half hours, when you are not hurried, and you will get from it much pleasure as well as profit. It is packed with amusement and information, and it is very modern in spirit, in spite of its old-fashioned style.

Through its pages you get a very strong impression of old Dr. Johnson. You laugh at the man's gross superstitions, at his vanity, his greediness at table, his absurd judgments of many of his contemporaries, his abuse of pensioners and his own quick acceptance of a pension. At all these foibles and weaknesses you smile, yet underneath them was a genuine man, like Milton, full of simplicity, honesty, reverence and humility--a man greater than any literary work that he produced or spoken word that he left behind him. You laugh at his groanings, his gluttony, his capacity for unlimited cups of hot tea; but you recall with tears in your eyes his pathetic prayers, his kindness to the old and crippled pensioners whom he fed and clothed, and his pilgrimage to Uttoxeter to stand bare-headed in the street, as penance for harsh words spoken to his father in a fit of boyish petulance years before.


(The end)
George Hamlin Fitch's essay: Old Dr. Johnson And His Boswell

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