Samuel Johnson: A Biography.
Samuel Johnson: The Struggle. By Jeffrey Meyers. New York: Basic Books., 2008. ISBN 978-0-465-04571-6. Pp. xvi+528. $35.00.
These two fine biographies commemorate the Tercentenary of Johnson's birth (18 September 1709). In July of 1737 Johnson proposed to Edward Cave a translation of the text and notes of Father Paolo Sarpi's History of the Council of Trent. More than a year later, with a proposal for the translation published, Johnson heard from a rival translator and, eventually, gave up the project. Recounting the incident, Meyers glances parenthetically, perhaps wistfully, at Martin: "there always seems to be a rival to any project a writer undertakes" (118). But Johnson's life is so rich in contradictions--in astonishing achievements and frightening abjections--that it provides abundant matter for two very different twenty-first-century accounts, just as, in the late eighteenth century, it sustained three. Both Meyers and Martin refer repeatedly and informatively to the biographies of Hester Lynch Thrale Piozzi and Sir John Hawkins that preceded (and were eclipsed by) Boswell's. As generations of Johnsonians have emphasized, much about Johnson's life Boswell could not know.
Martin has written biographies of Edmund Malone, the Shakespeare editor to whom Boswell dedicated his Life of Johnson, and of Boswell This preparation shapes Martin's understanding of the challenge that he faces. In a "Boswell-centric" Preface, Martin claims that biographers of Johnson need to acknowledge Boswelrs achievement but also to emphasize how partial, even selfish, his portrait is; to lament their lack of primary sources (Martin re-creates Johnson's burning, shortly before his death, "armloads" of his personal papers, calling it a "literary calamity"); to balance the twentieth-century anti-Boswell version of Johnson--"a man wracked with self-doubt, guilt, fear, and depression" (xxi)--with his achievements--the confident intelligence of the Rambler essays, the sure sense of what happens when we go to the theatre in the "Preface to Shakespeare" the hard, purposeful work on the Dictionary. We can agree that Boswell's "Johnsonianissimus" owes more to Boswell's need for a moral exemplar, for a father figure to bolster him against the temptations of wine and women, than to Johnson himself. But that only opens the question of how this man, who feared madness and spent long periods in melancholic stupor, got so much done.
Martin's Preface also limns several weaknesses in his fine book. Consider the following claim: "After Johnson published his brilliant moral essays in the 1740s and his great Dictionary in 1755, he became the voice of the age ..." (xx). Is the mistake here owing to a printer's error, the author's carelessness, or to a basic misunderstanding of where Johnson's great moral essays fit in his life (remarkably, Johnson began the Rambler while he was compiling the Dictionary)? Later we will be told that Edward Cave, whose support for Johnson via his Gentleman's Magazine Martin rightly emphasizes and thoroughly describes, died in 1734 (171) and that Bennet Langton "and Jonhson [sic] became good friends" (358). In a book that has the heft, the "feel" of a standard biography, these, admittedly occasional, fact errors and spelling mistakes are unsettling.
Meyers has written nearly a score of biographies of twentieth-century authors, painters and actors, from Humphrey Bogart to Edmund Wilson. He opens by citing Ford Madox Ford's description of Johnson as "the most tragic of all our literary figures" and concludes by outlining the fascination Johnson held for Samuel Beckett and Vladimir Nabokov. The former contemplated a four-act play, "Human Wishes;' about Johnson's very different domestic arrangements at Streatham with the Thrales and in his own rooms at Bolt Court and wrote a "ten-page fragment describing Johnson's radically discontented household: the blind Anna Williams, the sickly Elizabeth Desmoulins, the prostitute Poll Carmichael and the unlicensed physician Robert Levet" (455). In the latter's Pale Fire, John Shade shadows Sam Johnson--through allusions and details that Meyers masterfully traces.
Always pushing toward the modern, Meyers has difficulty integrating Johnson's contemporaries. He interrupts his first chapter with a brief history of seventheenth-and eighteenth-century British politics (24-25) and his fourth with a collection of commentaries upon Johnson's famous sartorial unkemptness and grotesque eating habits. Johnson's friendship with David Garrick, which lasted from 1736 until Garrick's death in 1781, is dropped into chapter 8, "The Doom of Man, 1745-1749:' (Here, at least, Meyers does tie into Garrick's 1749 production of Johnson's Irene.) A brief history of flagellation, from Richard Henry Dana to Marcel Proust, ends with something of a thud when we learn that "Johnson's practice, rather different from these savage punishments, combined voluntary humiliation, masochism (rather than sadism), displaced sexuality and religious penance" (361). These excurses in and of themselves are interesting enough but tend to raise the question, "Why here?" In a remarkable instance of biography-as-jumpcut, Meyers moves from Johnson's February 1767 meeting with King George III to his helping, in late 1769, with the defense of Giuseppe Barretti against charges of murder:
Thus were planted in the royal palace a decade before he began the work the seeds that eventually grew into The Lives of the Poets. Two years later Johnson moved from polite conversation in a palace to desperate maneuvers in a prison. (323)
Like Martin, Meyers presents Johnson as "a mass of contradictions: lazy and energetic, aggressive and tender, melancholic and humorous, commonsensical and irrational, comforted yet tormented by religion" (2). Meyers' subtitle nicely indicates how he accounts for Johnson's overcoming these hateful contraries: while he spent months, even years in various states of inanition, Johnson "always enjoyed a fight" (5) and eventually roused himself to "Struggle:' Readers interested in the sometimes gritty details of Johnson's life--his arrests for debt, the specifics of his income--will do well to turn to Meyers; readers interested in how others saw Johnson--in Johnson as a biographical subject--will do well to turn to Martin.
Martin places religion as the last and greatest Johnsonian contradiction: "Ironically, his extraordinary religious faith deepened his fears. His growing certainty that he would not go to Heaven, that he had let God down and not used his talents fully enough and that he had wasted time through indolence and idle thoughts all conspired against him" (xxii). Subsequently, Martin describes religion as "The centre of his imaginative life" (35) and "central to" his "life and thought" (237). Perhaps because he makes the claim so cogently and so powerfully, Martin does not pursue it. He does not cite Johnson's Prayers and Meditations and, except for one late passage on Johnson's writing for the clergyman / forger William Dodd (468-71), rarely cites his Sermons.
Meyers attends more carefully to the specifics of Johnson's religion, noting that Johnson's physical limitations made attendance at church unappealing to him, as did his boredom with banal sermons. However, he points out, as any reader of the Prayers and Meditations will remember, that Johnson "often criticized his own failure to attend divine services" (195) and frequently pledged to do better--a pledge whose breaking he equally frequently lamented. With his emphasis upon struggle, Meyers writes perceptively about how Christ's Parable of the Talents haunted Johnson. "He had inscribed in Greek on his pocket watch the admonition from John 9:4: 'the night cometh' when no man can work" (110); according to Hester Thrale he never could recite the Tantus labor non sit cassus passage of the Dies Irae "without bursting into a flood of tears" (199). Johnson's faith was, indeed, "extraordinary" because it required him to navigate between "his favorite Ecclesiastes" (Meyers 191) and Matthew 25:14-30. Realizing with unparalleled intensity the "Vanity of Human Wishes" Johnson also knew that he had great "talents" and that his Lord called upon him to exercise them. Thus Johnson persisted in setting himself impossible deadlines--three years for his Dictionary, eighteen months for his edition of Shakespeare--which he inevitably and guiltily missed.
Martin and Meyers handle differently Katherine Balderston's sixty-year old claim that Johnson, during his years at Streatham, was "a flagellant demanding to be scourged and manacled" (Martin 389). The evidence remains the same: "Johnson's Padlock committed to my care in the year 1768" as part of the sale of Thrale's personal effects in 1823; various entries in their journals, including Johnson's for 31 March 1771, De pedicis et manicis insane cogitation; an exchange of letters in early June 1773, written in French so that servants might not read them, which Thrale concludes "do not quarrel with your Governess for not using the rod enough." Martin places the letters at "an awkward time" for Thrale. She was nursing her dying mother, her children were ill, and she had builders in her house. Johnson was feeling neglected, Thrale harried, and the letters show Johnson melancholically worrying about his place in the household and Thrale kindly urging him to practice "self-discipline" and set a pattern for his visits (383-84). Although he warns against Boswell's bias, Martin, in this instance, makes Boswell's move; he rescues the Rambler from Balderston's "wild theory" (384). Meyers concludes more matter-of-factly: "It's not surprising ... that a man tormented by lifelong pain and guilt would seek penance and want to be gently whipped--not severely beaten." He characterizes flagellation as playing a positive role in Johnson's struggle against guilt and insanity because it allowed him to "displac[e] his love for the forbidden and unobtainable Hester" (369).
While no biographer writing today can "duck" Balderston's thesis, that it stands in Johnson studies as the equivalent of pornography's "money shot" is regrettable. Johnson as a "Man of Fetters" perhaps is more interesting, certainly more titillating than Johnson as a Man of Letters. But as they confront "the Padlock" these Tercentenary biographies do not escape the cul-de-sac in which the biographies of the 1970s--those by Christopher Hibbert, John Wain, and Walter Jackson Bate-floundered.
Forty years later, with newspapers dying and television networks struggling to defend their content, Johnson's great achievement should be clear to us-an achievement that dwarfs the details of his troubled sexuality. Through his Dictionary, his edition of Shakespeare, and his Lives, Johnson redefined literacy; he moved the English-speaking people beyond Alexander Pope's brilliant (but also nasty) anger about the decline of the Classics, the end of patronage, and the new literary commerce. Johnson's great threesome all were produced at the prompting of and in association with consortiums of booksellers; profit was a motive. Johnson established Shakespeare as the new "Classic" outlined a canon (not the canon) for British poetry, and slowed the inevitable (as he acknowledged) mutation of our language. He was not a great novelist, not a great dramatist, not a great poet (although he wrote some great poems). He was a brilliant essayist and, frequently, a great critic (but remember that he preferred Nahum Tate's happy ending for King Lear). His greatness lies in his establishing "English" as a written language that all with talent and energy might use; this is likely why the Irish Beckett and the Russian Nabokov appreciated him so greatly. His version of literacy has lasted more than 200 years and today, as it dies amidst the futile lamentations of op-ed writers in the New York Times and expressions of concern from members of the United States Congress, we might better ponder what he would have made of the Internet than whether his lashings were real or metaphorical.
University of Florida
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|Title Annotation:||Samuel Johnson: The Struggle|
|Publication:||Christianity and Literature|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2010|
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