A Melancholy Man of Letters


Samuel Johnson, the 18th-century writer and lexicographer, was not only a great man but the subject of the greatest of all biographies.

It's mainly due to Boswell's Life of Johnson (1791) that we know more about Johnson than perhaps anyone in history. C.S. Lewis remarked that in all narrative literature there are three figures we can instantly identify from a partial quotation: Socrates in Plato's Dialogues, Christ in the Gospels and Boswell's Johnson.

Modern biographers are aware of the competition. They have to write a first-rate book about Johnson or hear from critics that they've foolishly entered the wrong league. And a number of scholars, notably Paul Fussell and W. Jackson Bate, have given us remarkable portraits. They're now joined by Peter Martin, whose Samuel Johnson: A Biography is a model of its kind: a deeply felt, beautifully written account of a personality about whom we cannot know enough.

Johnson's life was a tale of triumph over every kind of obstacle. His parents, who lived in rural Litchfield, were destitute. He suffered from bad health, poor eyesight, defective hearing, an alcoholic wife and constant attacks of melancholy. He was so poor as a young writer that he and the poet Richard Savage walked the streets of London all night for want of lodging.

He began to attract notice with his classic poem "London" and the twice-weekly essays in the Rambler, a literary journal that he published in the early 1750s. But the breakthrough came with his great Dictionary (1755). At the time, the French and Italians already had good dictionaries, produced by armies of scholars. Johnson, working in a garret with a few assistants, wrote 43,000 definitions, illustrating them with 116,000 quotations from a staggering range of sources.

The poet Robert Browning read Johnson's Dictionary cover-to-cover, and it is still a surprisingly entertaining volume. There are, of course, the definitions where Johnson is having mischievous fun. A patron is "commonly a wretch who supports with insolence, and is paid with flattery." The Dictionary made Johnson a national figure. Some fashionable ladies once commended him for "the omission of all naughty words." "What! My dears!" Johnson replied. "Then you have been looking for them!"

London in the 18th century was a place of ruffians, cockfights, bear-baiting and unimaginable poverty. It was also a city of taverns and coffeehouses. Johnson called a tavern chair "the throne of human felicity." It was there that he had his memorable exchanges with the actor David Garrick, the painter Joshua Reynolds and the statesman Edmund Burke. Mr. Martin writes that the tavern was the "18th century Internet," but I doubt that the brilliant repartee recorded by Boswell and others is to be found in cyberspace.

Samuel Johnson: A Biography

By Peter Martin
(Belknap/Harvard, 608 pages, $35)

Next to Shakespeare, Johnson is by far the most quoted English writer. But we forget how many of his famous statements were struck off in the heat of conversation. "Depend on it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." "Worth seeing? yes; but not worth going to see." "In lapidary inscriptions a man is not upon oath." His best-known remark -- "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel" -- is usually misunderstood. It was not a criticism of flag-waving loyalty. Rather it was aimed at politicians who mask self-interest with a feigned love of country. There was, in fact, no more ardent supporter of England than Samuel Johnson.

Are we right to think that people in the past had vivid personalities in the way we do not? Johnson once threw into the pit of a theater, chair and all, somebody who had taken his seat. On another occasion, during a country stroll, he and some friends came to the top of a steep hill. Johnson announced that he was determined "to take a roll down." When his friends understood what he meant, they tried to dissuade him. But Johnson insisted, saying that he "had not had a roll in a long time." Lying down parallel with the edge of the hill, he descended, turning over and over until he reached the bottom.

Johnson famously remarked that "no man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money." His picaresque novel about the elusive nature of happiness, The History of Rasselas (1759), was written to defray the expenses of his mother's funeral. The Lives of the English Poets (1781), one of the landmarks of English criticism, began as a piece of hackwork for a group of London booksellers. Often composed in frantic circumstances, his writing now seems like one of the calm, majestic peaks of the Augustan age.

Mr. Martin makes much of Johnson's acute melancholy -- but then so did Johnson, who claimed that he led "a life radically wretched." It is an interesting question whether a person who thinks that he is on the brink of insanity is indeed so. What makes Johnson's life and writings -- the poems, essays and literary criticism -- so bracing is that we all suffer to some degree from the inner struggles that he maps with such candor and humor. We find in his essays a great deal of pre-Freudian wisdom, such as: "Much of the pain and pleasure of mankind arises from conjectures which everyone makes of the thoughts of others."

There is only one way to end a biography of Johnson. Mr. Martin quotes the famous valedictory words of an otherwise obscure contemporary who expressed what the entire English world felt after Johnson's death in 1784. "He has made a chasm, which not only nothing can fill up, but which nothing has a tendency to fill up. Johnson is dead. Let us go to the next best. There is nobody. No man can be said to put you in the mind of Johnson."



George Sim Johnston. "A Melancholy Man of Letters." The Wall Street Journal (September 18, 2008).

Reprinted with permission of the author and The Wall Street Journal © 2008 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.


George Sim Johnston is a writer living in New York City. His articles and essays have appeared in Harpers, The American Spectator, Commentary, The Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, Crisis, and Catholic World Report. He is a recipient of the Journalism Award from the Catholic Press Association. He is the author of, Did Darwin Get it Right?: Catholics and the Theory of Evolution.

Copyright © 2008 Wall Street Journal

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