The Samuel Johnson Encyclopedia
By Pat Rogers
Review Author: James G. Hanink
“I bequeath to God,” Samuel Johnson wrote in his will, “a soul polluted with many sins, but I hope purified by Jesus Christ.” Dr. Johnson (AKA Sam Johnson, Dictionary Johnson, and the Caliban of literature) knew himself well.
Caliban, is he? The sobriquet, from Shakespeare’s Tempest, suggests the cannibal. It hints at deformation. Indeed, Johnson did hugely devour the whole body of English literature. And to his death he carried the scars of his childhood scrofula and the raw anxiety of a young man who knew himself far more likely to die in obscurity than to live to express his genius. Occasionally, though, we can see the work of Providence: Johnson’s genius has become part of our cultural legacy; and he lived, damaged as he was, with splendid courage and insight. Sam Johnson, who observed that “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life,” never tired of either.
Dr. Johnson is, plain and simple, heroic, and heroes can’t be sequestered on bookshelves. Johnson’s works, above all, and James Boswell’s Life of Johnson best support this reading. And
now, for the harried denizens of today’s London or Los Angeles (or Anywhere), we have the new Rogers Encyclopedia. It’s thoroughly intelligent and instructive. At one and the same time, Rogers introduces us to Johnson and the world he enlivened. While we won’t find everything we might want to know about Johnson, there’s more than enough to delight in — after all, it’s Johnson with whom we’re having a chat. So let’s consider an NOR sampler of the man.
Under the entry “Religion,” we find that Dr. Johnson was an orthodox Anglican who mostly read his way into his faith. He tells us that in William Law’s A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life he’d found “an overmatch” for himself and “the first occasion of…thinking in earnest of religion.” Johnson was, early on, mightily influenced by the Book of Common Prayer. In his apologetics he profited from Hugo Grotius’s De Veritate Religionis. (Remember: For Johnson it’s Latin poetry that’s the crown of literature; he’d written it from his early teens.) For all his scholarship, however, among “the enlightened” he was seen as rather a fundamentalist (ever confused with orthodox) and showing a bit of “enthusiasm,” that is, fanaticism. But seriousness is not a pathology.
In part it was Johnson’s belief in hell that brought such charges on his head. When a friend once asked just what he meant by “damned,” Johnson shot back, “Sent to Hell, Sir, and punished everlastingly.” In any case, he was not scared off by arched eyebrows, even if they were Voltaire’s. Of another friend, whose mental illness had led to religious mania, Johnson said, “He insisted on people praying with him; and I’d as lief pray with [him] as anyone else…. He did not love clean linen, and I have no passion for it.” Neither would he have much use, much less passion, for, say, Los Angeles’s sanitized creeds of therapy and uplift and prosperity. (Let no one snicker! Peoria is a suburb of Los Angeles.)
Even the enlightened, though, were moved by the hospitality which Johnson’s faith encouraged. Rogers tells us that Johnson gathered “a strange collection of permanent house guests…who could variously be described as derelicts, unfortunates, dropouts or waifs.” Johnson, one suspects, would have preferred St. Benedict’s account: “A guest comes, Christ comes.”
On the matter — and form — of charity, Johnson’s politics converges with his faith. Under the entry “Politics,” we find that he was a Tory. But his was the Toryism of those who were, or figured to be, casualties of the economic practices (artificial money, credit, and money-managing professions) and cultural policies (loss of community and reckless social mobility) of the Whigs. Johnson saw Whiggism leading to a structural and personal abandonment of the poor. Having been poor himself, and forced to leave Oxford after a single year, he would have no part of Whig Progress. The poor will always be with us, but Johnson saw that the new capitalism guaranteed that they would not be among us but rather firmly and hygienically put to one side. Has very much changed — apart from feverish efforts to keep the poor from crossing our borders?
Two hundred plus years after his death, Dr. Johnson’s literary credentials remain in first-rate order. Poet, biographer, essayist, composer of prayers and sermons, journalist, and critic — the canon will seldom be without him. But it’s Sam Johnson’s life that’s most important. It’s a life that pulses through his writing and, with rollicking integrity, endeared him to friends and won him enemies worth having. His contemporary, David Hume, arguably the most dominant figure in modern philosophy, told Boswell he would give him half a crown “for every page of [Johnson’s] dictionary in which he could not find an absurdity.”
Lighten up, David? No, the battle had been joined. Johnson had already spoken to the main point. “Hume [and his ilk] gratify themselves at any expense…. Truth, Sir, is a cow that will yield such people no more milk, and so they are gone to milk the bull.” (Do we think of the boy from Arkansas who’s turned a bully pulpit into a pulpit of bull?)
To be sure, a good many slept through the battle that Johnson had joined, and many others sleep on today. But not Johnson, not then. And not the spirit of Johnson, not today.
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