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A History of the Commentary on Selected Writings of Samuel Johnson.

This volume belongs to a series which occupies the middle ground between The Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature and the Critical Heritage Series. It is in the form of a digest, with short quotations. A. distinguishing feature is that the author is a partisan who, as he puts it, has 'attempted to mediate between Johnson and his critics'.

The arrangement is by genre. Although the only conspicuous omission is the Dictionary, the headings rule out a number of commentaries, such as studies of Johnson's prose style or of his literary criticism, which cross genre divisions. This excludes several famous essays, and one can only guess how many unknown ones. The chronological arrangement turns the author into a species of juggler, as he tries to keep pieces of significant criticism in view until their ideas are picked up again, perhaps years later. Although Tomarken is very adept, the price he pays for his comprehensiveness is that we rarely get any sense of a developing debate. When he does allow himself an overview it tends to be bland and conciliatory.

The discussion of the ethical aims of the early lives distances them from the stigma of hackwork, but the relationship between the truth and pleasurable elements is unclear.

One advantage of the book's structure is the ways in which each different genre produces its distinctive pattern of critical history. The reception of the periodical essays gives a circular pattern, with Johnson in recent years being seen rather as he was in own time, as using the essay as a vehicle for 'higher morality'. The debate about the Lives of the Poets is heavily weighted towards the last thirty years, the period when biography came of age as an academic subject, while the Journey, after contemporary disputes about Johnson's partisanship, went almost entirely unremarked for most of the nineteenth century. It was revived by topographical interest, and more recently attracted the new generation of literary critics of travel writing. These very different trajectories do much to justify the publisher's claim that the volume illustrates the history of literature.

The long chapter on Rasselas shows the virtues of the volume most clearly, partly because this is the only one of Johnson's works which has generated a continuous commentary, but also because its actual literary status has always been a matter of discussion. Boswell's view of it as an emanation of Johnson's 'morbid melancholy' was endorsed by Hazlitt, but modified by Scott, who saw it as more uplifting than debilitating. This debate continues. The generic problem rose with greatest force in the early twentieth century, as analysis of its literary structure put Rasselas in the tradition of the novel, while acknowledging that it was an oriental tale. In the 1950s come psychological interpretations of the astronomer's anxiety as possibly a projection of Johnson's own guilt. Subsequently there is much discussion of the meaning of the last chapter. The account concludes with Alan Liu's 'deconstructive strategy' which uses the background of the death of Johnson's mother to explore the burial of the mummy in the catecombs.

A work like this might easily be overwhelmed by its own annotations, but in fact there are no notes at all: the text contains only parenthetical page references to the chronological list of all works cited. This system is unfussy and virtually foolproof. The continuousness of the text makes it attractive to read, but difficult to use as a reference work. Quotations from the sources are, where they occur, of the briefest, but this does not save them from error. Most of the citations from Boswell's Life contains mistranscriptions such as 'principle' for 'principal' and 'Journey' for 'journey'. Those from Hawkins's Life are more accurate, but most of the page references are wrong. There are also some disconcerting word divisions, such as astronomer, formulation, analysis, and rearranged, and the spelling of all English texts is Americanized.

A. F. T. LURCOCK Oxford
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Author:Lurcock, A.F.T.
Publication:Notes and Queries
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1996
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