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Outlines of English and American Literature
Dr. Johnson and his Circle
by Long, William J.

Since Caxton established the king's English as a literary language our prose style has often followed the changing fashion of London. Thus, Lyly made it fantastic, Dryden simplified it, Addison gave it grace; and each leader set a fashion which was followed by a host of young writers. Hardly had the Addisonian style crossed the Atlantic, to be the model for American writers for a century, when London acclaimed a new prose fashion--a ponderous, grandiloquent fashion, characterized by mouth-filling words, antithetical sentences, rounded periods, sonorous commonplaces--which was eagerly adopted by orators and historians especially. The man who did more than any other to set this new oratorical fashion in motion was the same Dr. Samuel Johnson who advised young writers to study Addison as a model. And that was only one of his amusing inconsistencies.

Johnson was a man of power, who won a commanding place in English letters by his hard work and his downright sincerity. He won his name of "the great lexicographer" by his Dictionary, which we no longer consult, but which we remember as the first attempt at a complete English lexicon. If one asks what else he wrote, with the idea of going to the library and getting a book for pleasure, the answer must be that Johnson's voluminous works are now as dead as his dictionary. One student of literature may be interested in such a melancholy poem as "The Vanity of Human Wishes"; another will be entertained by the anecdotes or blunt criticisms of the Lives of the Poets; a third may be uplifted by the Rambler Essays, which are well called "majestically moral productions"; but we shall content ourselves here by recording Johnson's own refreshing criticism of certain ancient authors, that "it is idle to criticize what nobody reads." Perhaps the best thing he wrote was a minor work, which he did not know would ever be published. This was his manly Letter to Lord Chesterfield, a nobleman who had treated Johnson with discourtesy when the poor author was making a heroic struggle, but who offered his patronage when the Dictionary was announced as an epoch-making work. In his noble refusal of all extraneous help Johnson unconsciously voiced Literature's declaration of independence: that henceforth a book must stand or fall on its own merits, and that the day of the literary patron was gone forever.


The story of Johnson's life (1709-1784) has been so well told that one is loath to attempt a summary of it. We note, therefore, a few plain facts: that he was the son of a poor bookseller; that despite poverty and disease he obtained his classic education; that at twenty-six he came to London, and, after an experience with patrons, rebelled against them; that he did every kind of hackwork to earn his bread honestly, living in the very cellar of Grub Street, where he was often cold and more often hungry; that after nearly thirty years of labor his services to literature were rewarded by a pension, which he shared with the poor; that he then formed the Literary Club (including Reynolds, Pitt, Gibbon, Goldsmith, Burke, and almost every other prominent man in London) and indulged nightly in his famous "conversations," which were either monologues or knockdown arguments; and that in his old age he was regarded as the king of letters, the oracle of literary taste in England.

Such is the bare outline of Johnson's career. To his character, his rough exterior and his kind heart, his vast learning and his Tory prejudices, his piety, his melancholy, his virtues, his frailty, his "mass of genuine manhood," only a volume could do justice. Happily that volume is at hand. It is Boswell's Life of Johnson, a famous book that deserves its fame.

Boswell's Johnson

Boswell was an inquisitive barrister who came from Edinburgh to London and thrust himself into the company of great men. To Johnson, then at the summit of his fame, "Bozzy" was devotion itself, following his master about by day or night, refusing to be rebuffed, jotting down notes of what he saw and heard. After Johnson's death he gathered these notes together and, after seven years of labor, produced his incomparable Life of Johnson (1791).

The greatness of Boswell's work may be traced to two causes. First, he had a great subject. The story of any human life is interesting, if truthfully told, and Johnson's heroic life of labor and pain and reward was passed in a capital city, among famous men, at a time which witnessed the rapid expansion of a mighty empire. Second, Boswell was as faithful as a man could be to his subject, for whom he had such admiration that even the dictator's frailties seemed more impressive than the virtues of ordinary humanity. So Boswell concealed nothing, and felt no necessity to distribute either praise or blame. He portrayed a man just as that man was, recorded the word just as the word was spoken; and facing the man we may see his enraptured audience,--at a distance, indeed, but marvelously clear, as when we look through the larger end of a field glass at a landscape dominated by a mountain. One who reads this matchless biography will know Johnson better than he knows his own neighbor; he will gain, moreover, a better understanding of humanity, to reflect which clearly and truthfully is the prime object of all good literature.


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