Johnson’s Tercentenary

Johnson believed utterly in the republic of letters, the community of learning, with the whole of man and nature for its object, and all human enterprise and improvement depending on it.—Peter Levi

In honor of Samuel Johnson’s birth on this day, 300 years ago, I’ve provided a short summary of his major writings to encourage others to take at look at this remarkable man of letters. The best place to start is with the periodical essays, published in The Rambler, The Adventurer, and The Idler from 1750-60. Johnson is very quotable in these works because of his remarkable ability to compress so much thought and observation into brilliant generalizations. In this respect, what he said of the poet Alexander Pope applies to his own writings: “In his work are exhibited in a very high degree the two most engaging powers of an author: new things are made familiar, and familiar things are made new.” Recommended collections include the Yale edition, selected by W. Jackson Bate, and the new Penguin Classics anthology.

If Johnson’s essays belong to the great tradition of wisdom literature, so does the moral fable Rasselas. It is the story of a young Abyssinian prince who escapes from the listlessness of pampered captivity in a palace of pleasure and undertakes a journey to discover the right choice of life. It is an interesting parable of how man may grow wiser from his disappointments and gain a mature sense of reality.   As W. Jackson Bate says, implied throughout the story “is the radical mistake we make when we self-centeredly equate ‘happiness’ with any particular object or condition.” The next work readers will want to consider is The Journey to the Western Islands Scotland based on the excursion that Johnson and his friend and future biographer James Boswell made together in 1773. It is an enjoyable travelogue that tells us as much about author’s mind as it does about the world in which he lived.

Johnson’s masterpiece of literary biography, Lives of the English Poets, with sketches of 52 poets of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, is no longer in print in its entirety, although it is still possible to find used copies of the Everyman Library two volume set. Literary scholar L. Archer-Hind writes that no man was better qualified than Johnson to write the lives of these men. It is more than a matter of mere style, however, since he is “always the good man and just, his praise not fulsome, nor his blame unkind.”

Finally there is Boswell. While we can enjoy the English writer through his erudite essays and biographies, we would not have as complete a picture of the man without that marvelously garrulous portrait,  The Life of Johnson, published in 1791. As R. W. Chapman says in the preface to the Oxford edition: “For a century and more, Boswell’s [work] stood in lonely eminence. All other English biographies seemed mere foothills.”

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