By Peter MartinHarvard
How often our usage manages to accomplish, for a name or an expression, the precise negation of its originally intended meaning. To satirize the sycophants among his courtiers, King Canute sarcastically commanded the waves to keep their distance and allowed his own majesty to be wetted by the tides: now we give the name Canute to anyone in authority who foolishly attempts to ward off the inevitable. For the young scion of the Veronese house of Montague, only one girl in the whole world could possibly possess meaning, or be worth possessing: accordingly, we use the word Romeo to designate a tireless philanderer. In 18th-century England, John Wilkes was the leader of a radical political faction known as the Patriots. In Dr. Samuel Johnson’s Tory view, affiliation with that subversive party was “the last refuge of a scoundrel”: this now is construed as an attack on all those—most often Tories themselves—who take shelter in a too-effusive love of country.
The life and sayings of Johnson were so replete with ironies that perhaps it is no surprise to find literalness exacting its effect over the course of time. Peter Martin’s outstanding new biography gives the best account I have yet read of another of its subject’s celebrated observations—“Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” In 1777, a popular and fashionable clergyman named William Dodd was sentenced to death for forgery. Having read Johnson’s Rambler essays on the vagaries of the criminal-justice system, he bethought himself of the good doctor as a man who might be persuaded to intercede for him. Johnson took up the case for clemency and wrote not only a petition to the monarch, as if penned by Dodd, but also a sermon, “The Convict’s Address to His Unhappy Brethren,” which the hapless reverend delivered to his fellow inmates of Newgate Prison. So affecting was this address that it helped complete the swing of public opinion in favor of a pardon for Dodd. But authority was unflinching, and the wretched cleric was duly and publicly executed. There were those who doubted that he had possessed “the force of mind” required to have written such a fine sermon himself, and those who even suspected that Johnson might have been the “ghost” writer in the case. It was to quell such speculation that Johnson made the remark, which we can therefore understand not as a cynical and clever one but as a very elegant and modest disclaimer. Having been disappointed by the failure of Walter Jackson Bate to tell this important tale aright in his immense 1978 biographical study, I was full of admiration for Peter Martin for managing to summarize it so deftly.
Not that Johnson was by any means incapable of cynicism. He made quite a little income by writing anonymous sermons for a two-guinea fee, and he assured a friend’s newly ordained son:
“The composition of sermons is not very difficult. Invent first and then embellish … Set down diligently your thoughts as they rise in the first words that occur … I have begun a sermon after dinner and sent it off by the post that night.”
He was quite as able to be terse and memorable when in conversation and, like Oscar Wilde (who was, like him, disconcertingly vast when seen at close quarters), seems seldom to have been off duty when it came to the epigrammatic and aphoristic. The urge felt by so many of Johnson’s contemporaries—not James Boswell alone—to keep a record of his doings and utterances has placed him among the first figures in history whom we feel we “know” as a person. Indeed, so well are even his tics and mannerisms and symptoms conveyed that Martin can confidently say that Johnson more probably suffered from emphysema than asthma, and Oliver Sacks was able some years ago to make a fairly definite retrospective diagnosis of Tourette’s syndrome.
And yet for all this, we know barely enough to know what we don’t know. In the last days of his life, in the mean little court off Fleet Street where he made his dwelling, Johnson staged a mockery of the disclosure industry that is associated with that address, and heaped up a huge pyre of his papers, diaries, manuscripts, and letters. With his loyal black servant, Frank Barber, serving as counter-amanuensis, he spent a week at the task of self-immolation. Had it not been for Boswell’s retention of some of their mutual correspondence, and Johnson’s own (and presumably significant) inability to burn the letters of Mrs. Hester Thrale, we might have lost the whole trove.
But if it comes to that, we might very nearly never have heard of Samuel Johnson of Lichfield in the first place. Having almost expired in childbirth (and having thus been hastily baptized to save his immortal soul), the little boy fell victim to scrofula and was stricken partially blind and deaf. In those days the remedy for scrofula—also known as “the King’s Evil”—was to be magically “touched” by the hereditary monarch. Young Samuel was taken to be touched by Queen Anne, and if the charm did not “take” in his case, well, then, it could be because there had been a disturbance in the legitimacy of the line after the Jacobite convulsions. Johnson thus operates in that extended period of English (and American) history when the divine right of kings is not yet quite exhausted or discredited but when the concept of “the rights of man” has yet to be fully born. Considering how nearly he was extinguished before he could play any part in this great argument, it is perhaps surprising how little he esteemed Thomas Gray, author of the greatest elegy for the unsung.