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A Select Few, Placed by Fortune
This review appears in the Spring 2019 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe now, go here.
Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped an Age
By Leo Damrosch
In 1764, Joshua Reynolds was worried about his friend Samuel Johnson. Johnson, who frequently fell into depressions, had completed his Dictionary of the English Language almost a decade earlier but had written little since then. “My life is one long escape from myself,” Johnson remarked. He needed diversions. Reynolds, who knew that Johnson loved to expound to his friends and to frequent taverns—he referred to a tavern chair as “the throne of human felicity”—wanted to help jolt him out of his periodic funks. He suggested that they invite several friends to join them once a week at the Turk’s Head Tavern in Gerrard Street. On Friday evenings, Johnson and Reynolds would meet to dine and drink until midnight in a private room with such worthies as Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, David Garrick, Oliver Goldsmith, and Edward Gibbon. Eventually, their weekly revels morphed into what is now known as the London Literary Society, but Johnson and his companions simply referred to “the Club.” The hurdles to entry were high—James Boswell was blackballed until 1773 because the other members viewed him as a scapegrace trading on his friendship with Johnson.
In The Club, Leo Damrosch, an emeritus professor of literature at Harvard, plunges with gusto into the hurly-burly of eighteenth-century intellectual life. An excellent stylist, he vividly evokes the mental world that the members of the club inhabited, drawing not only on their works and letters but also on portraits and illustrations of events and places. He highlights the important role that women played for Johnson and his friends, including Fanny Burney, the daughter of the celebrated musicologist Charles, and Hester Thrale, the vivacious descendant of Welsh gentry who turned her palatial residence at Streatham Park into a center of intellectual converse. At the heart of Damrosch’s portrait is the remarkable relationship between Johnson, the towering sage, and Boswell, the eager disciple.
Boswell, who had been maltreated by his tyrannical father, Lord Auchinleck, found a new and more benevolent master and commander in Johnson after he left Scotland to live in London in 1763. Their friendship endured until Johnson’s death twenty-one years later; “all that time,” Damrosch writes, “Boswell constantly relied on him for the advice, encouragement, and love he never got from Lord Auchinleck.” To the amusement and disdain of some in Johnson’s circle, Boswell, right from his very first encounter with Johnson in a bookshop near Russell Square, recorded the great man’s spontaneous conversation, much of which found its way into his bestseller, The Life of Johnson.
Decades later, Macaulay, in his famous essay on Boswell, inflicted a grievous wound upon his reputation, declaring that Johnson’s adept had attained literary eminence not in spite of his weaknesses but because of them. According to Macaulay:
If he had not been a great fool, he would never have been a great writer. Without all the qualities which made him the jest and the torment of those among whom he lived, without the officiousness, the effrontery, the toad-eating, the insensibility to reproof, he never could have produced so excellent a book. He was a slave, proud of his servitude . . . a man without delicacy, without shame, without sense enough to know when he was hurting the feeling of others or when he was exposing himself to derision; and because he was all this, he has . . . immeasurably surpassed such writers as Tacitus, Clarendon, Alfieri, and his own idol Johnson.
This was excessive. Boswell revered Johnson, but he was no lickspittle. “Mr. Boswell was never in anybody’s company who did not wish to see him again,” Johnson remarked. Johnson, who read with approval Boswell’s account of their travels The Journey of a Tour to the Hebrides, knew that he intended to write a biography, and their relationship deepened over the years. Sometimes Boswell could drive Johnson bonkers with his persistent questions—“Sir, you have but two topicks, yourself and me. I am sick of both,” Johnson once said. Nevertheless, Boswell was a shrewd interrogator who rightly prided himself on “an admirable talent of leading the conversation: I do not mean leading as in an orchestra, playing the first fiddle, but leading as one does in examining a witness: starting topics, and making the company pursue them.” Damrosch distinguishes between Boswell, a romantic who “fantasized about feudal affection between lords and their dependents,” and Johnson, the hardheaded pragmatist who insisted on reason and self-control rather than the sensual hedonism that Boswell, who regularly patronized prostitutes, liked to indulge in at home and abroad.
Whether Johnson fully mastered his passions is a matter of debate. He referred to his adored Hester Thrale as a rattlesnake—“for many have felt your venom, few have escaped your attractions, and all the world knows you have the rattle.” When she married an Italian violinist after the death of her first husband, he went into a tizzy. There is some scholarly speculation that Johnson may have enjoyed a protracted and even outright sadomasochistic relationship with her, depending on how one interprets Johnson’s remark that “a Woman has such power between the Ages of twenty five and forty five, that She may tye a man to a post and whip him if she will”—a sentiment that prompted Thrale herself to note: “This he knew of himself was literally and strictly true.” In an essay in the Rambler, Johnson offered a sympathetic first-person account of an imaginary streetwalker that he called Misella who recounted her life of woe. Unlike Boswell, Johnson never described prostitution as a form of love. He was too hardheaded for that.
The members of the Club may have enjoyed verbal jousting, but they were united by the belief that social order required “subordination,” or a structure of deference rooted in historical tradition. Edward Gibbon, for instance, complacently observed in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire that while “constant and useful labor” may be the occupation of the vulgar multitude, it was the case that the “select few, placed by fortune above that necessity, can fill up their time by the pursuits of interest or glory, by the improvement of their estate or of their understanding, by the duties, the pleasures, and even the follies of social life.” Adam Smith agreed. “Laws and government,” he wrote, may be considered as a combination of the rich to oppress the poor, and preserve to themselves the inequality of the goods which would otherwise be soon destroyed by the attacks of the poor, who if not hindered by the government would soon reduce the others to an equality with themselves by open violence.” Johnson dismissed the idea of progress outright. When Boswell said, “So, Sir, you laugh at schemes of political improvement,” he replied, “Why, Sir, most schemes of political improvement are laughable.”
But perhaps no one issued more coruscating denunciations of the projectors who wanted to create a utopia in power than Burke. Many English Whigs supported the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789. Burke did not. According to Damrosch, “His immediate and fierce denunciations resulted in a permanent breach with them, and by 1791 Burke was effectively a Whig no more.” After famine broke out in England following a harsh winter in 1794, Burke, in his Thoughts and Details on Scarcity, pooh-poohed the notion that government should assist the starving. Quite the contrary. If any relief was to be administered, he wrote, it should come solely from private charity. He also suggested that the government encourage the distilling of liquor to help the poor. “If not food,” he said, “it greatly alleviates the want of it.”
When it came to British imperialism, Johnson and Burke were in agreement about opposition to slavery, which became the great moral cause of Macaulay’s father, Zachary, not to mention William Wilberforce. Johnson was unequivocal in responding to a query of Boswell’s about a specific case involving a black servant named Joseph Knight whose master had transported him from Jamaica to Scotland. In England and Ireland, slaves were freed in 1772, and in Scotland in 1778. Johnson said Knight should be a free man: “No man is by nature the property of another; the defendant is therefore by nature free. . . . It is to be lamented that moral right should ever give way to political convenience.” The merchants of Bristol refused to renominate Burke to parliament in 1780 because of his adamantine opposition to slavery. Boswell, by contrast, displayed distinctly retrograde tendencies, publishing a goofy three-hundred-line poem titled No Abolition of Slavery, or the Universal Empire of Love. The universal love in question apparently hinted at Boswell’s own enslavement by an anonymous woman: “For slavery there must ever be / While we have mistresses like thee!”
If Johnson greatly admired Burke for his rhetorical prowess, he and Boswell both loathed Gibbon. “The Infidel,” as they called him, provoked their ire with his ironic depiction of Christianity in the Decline and Fall. Boswell scornfully alluded to him as “I” when writing down the dialogues that took place at the Club. Like David Hume, Gibbon was a skeptic of divine intervention and created an uproar with his chapter on early church history. As a fifteen-year-old studying at Oxford, Gibbon converted to Roman Catholicism. His father was aghast. He promptly dispatched the wayward teenager to Lausanne, where he studied with the Protestant pastor David Pavillard. Soon enough, he learned French and repented of his lurch into popery. The Decline and Fall was steeped in the Enlightenment skepticism that Gibbon had soaked up in Lausanne. For all the obloquy Gibbon received in England for his impious views of the early church fathers, Damrosch emphasizes that he was not opposed to Christianity itself. He simply tried to view it as a philosophic historian. He admired Jesus “as a great teacher,” Damrosch writes, “whom later theologians reinvented as the second person of the Holy Trinity, using Greek philosophical concepts that Jesus himself never did.”
Like Gibbon, who endured without complaint a swelling hydrocele that eventually led to his death, Johnson was a tough old bird. On his deathbed, he was convinced that the doctors were afraid to cut deeply enough into his legs to drain excess fluid from them and grabbed a pair of scissors to try to accomplish the task himself. Near the end, he told a friend, “I will be conquered; I will not capitulate,” and said to another, “Jam moriturus—I am about to die”—echoing the famous salutation of gladiators to the Roman emperor, Morituri te salutamus—“We who are about to die salute you.” Johnson’s immortality was ensured by Boswell, who essentially created the modern art of biography with his Life, which appeared in 1791. Not a bad record for someone whom Horace Walpole dismissed as an “old sot.” ♦
Jacob Heilbrunn is the editor of the National Interest.
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