In Boswell’s Life of Johnson, Volume III, we follow the last four years of Johnson’s life, 1776-1780, and the man we have come to know remains the same. He reports periods of indolence, no doubt depression, that make his work on The Lives of the Poets fitful going, but he is still a paragon of industry. At least when Boswell is with him, he dines with interesting men—mostly—night after night. London is his beloved feast. If he thinks he may be bored at the table, he brings along a book that he keeps in his lap and can read without anyone but Boswell knowing. If he arrives at a new house and comes across a new book and it interests him, he attacks it with his eyes, isolating himself from the gathering crowd, asking the text questions, judging it, bringing it into focus. He still has the queer way of tilting his head when he thinks through his response to good ideas and bad over the dinner table. He is querulous when provoked by bad manners and insolent questions. Sometimes people gather around him after dinner four deep, and he is a kind of television show in which the host is asked questions by the audience.
The consistency of Johnson’s character befits a man at the end of his seventh decade, but at the same time, it is challenged by his key principle: honesty. He won’t say what he does not believe. Sometimes what he believes is disruptive or inconvenient to himself and others, so he has to be agile in expressing himself. This is the age of reason, and he is reason. If he were other than reason, he would betray himself. So he condemns some writers and poets while insisting on the virtues of others. Goldsmith was a poet he held in low regard. The great actor Garrick wins him over with his generosity, more than his stagecraft. Men like Johnson—Adam Smith, Edmund Burke—populate this age. There are only glancing references to these giants. But Sir Joshua Reynolds pops up again and again, and he, Boswell notes, is similar to Johnson. Always the same. Catch him when you will, Reynolds does not change.
This firmness of personality, held in place by reason, judgment, principles, values, is quite different from what we see and encounter today. Public life is a sad spectacle of ducking and dodging; it is shallow, not grounded in erudition; and it is personality-based in an arbitrary way, meaning that the inner life of a public figure, be it intellectual, politician, artist, actor, seems always in the foreground. A friend commented to me yesterday—a friend who is Indian—that we seem so wrapped up in our multiple narcissisms that no one really cares about larger issues.
Johnson would not have it so. We sense, and can read elsewhere,that he was a massively disturbed individual. He feared death and he feared being judged and he wrestled with a sense that he should be punished. Possibly, one later critic has suggested, he found some relief and perverse satisfaction in being bound and struck or whipped. That’s the kind of stuff that grabs us today. Johnson did everything he could to keep his doldrums and self-condemnation out of the conversation. He did not believe in ad hominem arguments. To the contrary, he despised them. To him an opinion praised or dismissed because its author was such and such a person who acted hypocritically was still an opinion, to be dealt with on its own terms, not on the basis a single man’s life.
Johnson was, in sociologist Richard Sennett’s terms, a public man. The business of being himself involved participating in the overall civic enterprise of London, England, and the world (but mostly London.) To be such a man, one must have read, thought, and developed a worthy persona, if you will, that does not descend into the trivia of one’s private affairs. The issue is not oneself. Oneself is inadequate, too small a canvas, to represent the fundamental challenges everyone faces. Bloviating won’t do it. Considered judgments are in order, and no one was quicker in offering considered judgments than Johnson. He was a learned wit and a sage and a person of seemingly infinite curiosity.
All this comes through in this third volume of Boswell’s Life of Johnson, but at the same time, there are other aspects of Johnson’s life and writings I plan to look into. Next up is probably Mrs. Thrale. She and her husband offered Johnson lodgings for years. When her husband died, one might have thought she would respond to Johnson’s suit, but if he offered such a suit, and to me that’s not clear, she chose another man, a much lesser man, a more ordinary man.
What is striking about Mrs. Thrale in this book is that she is often reported to be incapable of keeping her facts straight, telling a story as something actually happened, or even worrying that she was, contrary to Johnson and Reynolds, inconstant. In a way she is a complement to men like Johnson, and we can sense that Johnson found her a kind of amusing relief. He was not an unfunny man—all wits are funny—but he was deadly serious, and Mrs. Thrale was not a serious person, yet she was dear to Johnson.
Other figures appear in this volume who are, to be anachronistic, Dickensian. His household was half-possessed by others. He may have dined out so often in part because the food at home was so bad. But he generously tolerated and cohabited with odd figures who were always in some kind of pain or debt. A Christian would do this, Johnson would say, and he was a Christian, a sinner, a person who gave and forgave as a matter of course.
Boswell writes beautifully. He reports Johnsonian exchanges with such clarity that they must have been conducted exactly as he shares them with us. It would appear that he not only was well-born but also a reasonably successful attorney. Something else to look into.
I noticed another reviewer saying that one read Boswell on Johnson for the same reason that one read Jane Austen—the straightforward elegance of expression and judgment.
The facts, I think, are as follows: An Age of Reason is not enough to create a Johnson or an Austen or a Smith. The society in which they lived and symbolized is a creation over time. The balance in a Johnsonian sentence, its weight and counterweight, its assertiveness and reserve, reflects centuries of reflection.
Romanticism in the early 19th century and Freud toward the end of the 19th century pushed the western world toward a sense of existence—psychic existence—where private experience trumped public history. In fact, history dwindles along with public discourse because there is no way to track and catalogue the vagaries and incidents of hundreds of millions and billions of “I’s.”
It is devilishly hard work to be other than who you are in a personal sense. Not everyone is up to it. And when there is a societal shift away from privileging that which we have in common to that which makes us unique, it’s all the more difficult to insist on the greatness of things versus the smallness.
Johnson, of course, was a genius and an exemplar of good judgment and sweeping eloquence. We see that here. But we also see glimpses of social context almost diametrically opposed to the context of the 21st century.