The Use and Abuse of Samuel Johnson
It seems that for a number of decades now the historical profession has been one in search of a role. In high schools, numberless earnest government and state initiatives have had little effect in reversing the ebbing knowledge of basic historical details and evaluative techniques; in the Academy, history has taken longer than other disciplines to adapt to the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” into relativism and full-blown metaphysical subjectivism, and, where it has done so, it has often been through selling its wares to the service of more dexterous disciplines, or, more shamefully, to the currents of fashionable academic causes. History has survived, but increasingly through its subcategories—histories of “this and that”—held together through convenience and sufferance, but appearing to offer less and less in the way of a distinctive methodology or intellectual purpose for the Academy.
This has taken place, though, more through a loss of spirit than of purpose. In recent years, research into contexts and networks—the untidy methods of communication as much as what is communicated—have complicated and added nuance to causal relationships that had become flattened and simplified by the weight of modern assumptions, and, while complication and nuance might not yet be the weapons of choice for those competing in the marketplace of education, they have a vital academic purpose in reining in some of the more egregious ideological appropriations of historical “knowledge.” The issues at stake here are well illustrated in the debates that have been waged certainly since the eighties over the life and thought of Samuel Johnson, and the latest contributions to that debate offer a potential path forward for historians.
The two volumes of essays on Johnson under review round out a trilogy of collected essays on the state of recent research into the life, writings, and politics of Johnson. The first volume, Samuel Johnson in Historical Context, which appeared in 2002, introduced the reader to two opposing historiographical and methodological camps in Johnson studies: “Traditionalists contending for a modern Johnson, pragmatic, progressive, enlightened in a sense of the term acceptable to the late twentieth century,” and “[r]adical historicists . . . recognizing an older and stranger Johnson,” shaped by authentic eighteenth-century preoccupations, primarily those of dynastic conflict and “ecclesiastical commitment.”
These latest volumes bring us up to date with the state of play in this ongoing contest and mark, with some evident frustration, the durability of the Traditionalist camp, still stoutly defending, it would seem, the standard raised by Donald Greene in the middle of the last century. They also provide us with some fine scholarship displaying a range of alternative methods and historical approaches designed to uncover more of the “authentic” Johnson. In the process, they address perspectives on disciplinary techniques that are of import to a much broader audience than just Johnson aficionados—techniques that open up or reopen vistas upon our understanding of a range of figures, from John Locke to Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine, and of the intellectual and political world that shaped them.
Howard Erskine-Hill introduces the Interpretation of Samuel Johnson with a fine clarification of the contested areas, outlining an approach to the “historical” Johnson that exposes the “usable” Johnson of Traditionalist interpretations as one that has retained broad purchase despite reliance upon weakly or tendentiously interpreted texts and loosely contextualized terminology. The uncomfortable but persuasive charge, developed in Jonathan Clark’s concluding essay in the same volume, is that the resilience of Greene’s efforts to uncover a Johnson fit for the Enlightened Whiggery of posterity owes much to an abandonment by historians of their duty to establish a methodology that can take us beyond the influence of Sir Lewis Namier. Clark, one of the most formidable scholars of the long eighteenth century, offers specific illustrations of the persistence of critical interpretative methods and analytical paradigms that ignore fresh perspectives upon known or readily available evidence. The reader curious about Clark’s own findings and research should mark his contribution to the companion volume, The Politics of Samuel Johnson, and consult his 1994 study Samuel Johnson: Literature, religion and English cultural politics from the Restoration to Romanticism, and his later historiographical examination, Our Shadowed Present.
Whether or not the evidence of these two volumes suggests a “tipping point” in the contest between historicists and Traditionalists in favor of the former, we are treated to contributions from academics (a number also represented in the 2002 collection) that pry open, and into, both well-known and hitherto obscure literary evidence (from Boswell’s Life and Johnson’s own Lives of the Poets to the edited memoir of the Duke of Berwick and William Guthrie’s General History of England), and personal networks that are only faintly discernible now but were intimate, pressing, and undoubtedly soaked in significance at the time. The overall impact is deeply exciting. Even those contributions that do not push much beyond restatements of a position long held provide effective cover for some particularly energizing sallies.
At the center of the contest lies the matter of biographers and biography: from the enduring assumptions about the value of Boswell’s Life of Johnson and its relation to other contemporary biographies, to the question of how fresh approaches to the available sources might produce a more “authentic” picture of the interface between author, text, and context. In the first essay of The Interpretation, F. P. Lock presents a sketch of a putative “scholarly historical” life that focuses on the “study of contexts”—often hard to perceive personal and literary networks that shaped the texts and fill out the creative space between author and publication. Lock directs us to three key stratagems related to such a project, across which the essays in these two volumes are spread. The first is to look directly to Johnson’s shorter historical works rather than to Boswell and Hawkins, and to use those shorter works as a part of the re-evaluation of the classic historical biographies as primary sources. The second involves recognizing the diversity of motives and intentions that go into the production of a piece of writing, and avoiding the “autobiographical fallacy of “reading a writer’s thoughts in to his writings,” whereby we too often set down our own clues to be discovered. The third is to note that the formative years of a subject’s life, and therefore the time when the most careful reconstruction of networks and associations is required, lie well before the subject’s own work comes to prominence—in this case, not during the “Age of Johnson,” but two decades or more before it, in the 1730s.
The essays of O. M. Brack and Murray Pittock set out to revise our understanding of the relationship between the biographical works of James Boswell and Sir John Hawkins. Brack argues that Hawkins was best situated to craft a work that could convey vital contextual developments in the evolution of Johnson’s views, not least his problematic proximity to nonjuring. He considers Boswell’s characterization of his subject as “static” by comparison, consequent upon the Scotsman’s relatively late and sporadic acquaintance with Johnson. At the same time, and pace Macaulay, Pittock offers us a persuasive characterization of Boswell as an accomplished and artful manipulator, molding a Johnson “sanitized, smoothed, adapted and made more elegant” in order to fabricate an impression calculated to serve his own devices. This is not to renew war over Boswell’s competence or influence, but to return to the biographer some active and independent motivation in the shaping of the medium through which Johnson appears to us. As to the third of the prime contemporary biographies, in the final contribution to The Politics, Clark employs a narrative of Johnson’s little-remarked visit to Paris in 1775 to provide an accompanying re-evaluation of Hester Thrale as a biographer, in the course of a fascinating and scrupulous description of Johnson’s continuing links with the English-speaking Catholic “diaspora” and network of religious communities there.
The fruits of such re-evaluations may be tasted in Thomas Kaminski’s discussion of Johnson’s Toryism, which puts space between Johnson, the Latitudinarian Whiggery of Burke, and those modern connotations of the term “conservative” which flatten the richness and complexity of eighteenth-century Toryism. A similar feat is performed on Patriotism in Adrian Lashmore-Davies’s comparative study of Johnson and Lord Bolingbroke, where the crucial moral and political issue of oath-taking, loyalty, and the authority of conscience is approached by way of Johnson’s flirtation with Patriotism in the 1730s. Bolingbroke’s significance in the discourse of loyalty and resistance has long been acknowledged: indeed, his texts play, perhaps, too prominent a part in current understanding of Patriotism. This essay’s illuminating comparisons might point us to a more complex and diverse sense of that term in the 1730s and 40s—and thereby reveal the importance of mid-century Patriot networks (like, but not the same as “Tory” ones) for our appreciation of more familiar later-eighteenth-century affiliations and antagonisms.
Lock’s observation on the untapped value still to be found in Johnson’s shorter literary works finds a response in Erskine-Hill’s reading of Johnson’s Lives, where his interpretation of the politics and morality hidden within the lines of literary criticism is built upon a heightened sensitivity to the terminology and tropes of resistance that comes from greater contextualization of the period in which the texts were crafted. Summoning up the striking words of the poet Horace, quoted by Johnson in his “Life of Addison”—“I begin to find myself walking upon ashes under which fire is not extinguished”—Erskine-Hill marks the durability of partisan political and religious affiliations between Englishmen, showing how Johnson’s own negotiation of these fissures over the years allows us to discern an “indispensable alternative voice to the easy orthodoxy of the Enlightenment.”
While Erskine-Hill’s approach in this essay remains heavily immersed in the textual tropes, a more extensive treatment of the associative, professional mechanisms through which the Lives were processed in the 1770s—the practical workings of the publishing world, the signs and unspoken affiliations that can only really be approached through a sharp sensitivity to the “off-stage” networks of literary production—are well represented elsewhere in the collection. In “Johnson, Macpherson, and the Memoirs of the Marshal Duke of Berwick,” Niall Mackenzie offers a “micro-historical” episode spun out from Johnson’s refusal to write a preface to a work whose publication he encouraged, into an illuminating set of cross-references that shows the “two Samuel Johnsons” of the 1770s—not just loyalist and anti-Scotch, but the exposer of Macpherson the forger and exponent of Macpherson the revisionist historian.
This method, though, is perhaps shown to its best in a couple of contributions to the collection on The Politics of Samuel Johnson: Gabriel Glickman and Matthew Davis offer two of the most effective contributions—all the more so for being conditional and provisional in their evidential inferences. Glickman explores a network of writers and scholars in Oxford and London through which a “Patriot-Tory” discourse developed to the point of redeeming the martyrdom of Charles I through the accession of George III. His careful exploration of literary and historical works of such figures as William King and William Guthrie provides a context within which we can see how “Samuel Johnson’s attitudes characterized the tension between the new form of loyalist politics and an older dissident strain of Toryism.” Glickman’s methodology is a model of its kind, and recovers the best that historical method has to dismantle the more complacent scholarly assumptions that have settled on this subject. Davis executes a similar maneuver with his examination of the schism within the separatist nonjuring church over the reintroduction of certain “usages” in the Church liturgy that had fallen out between the prayer books of 1549 and 1552. Such apparently arcane issues are sharply assessed by Davis to plumb some of the more puzzling of Johnson’s habits, and are all the more persuasive in placing the development in Johnson’s thought alongside a continuing tension between “an attraction to ancient practices along with a hesitation to pursue antiquity at the expense of unity and establishment.”
It is, of course, a brave scholar who claims a higher degree of “authenticity” for their picture of an historical figure; but that is not quite the point of these collections. Their sights are set, rather, against the lack of authenticity that accompanies scholarly shibboleths. They question how much of the activity in Johnson studies over the past few decades has truly invigorated or challenged the historical paradigms upon which it has relied. But, further, the lesson of these collections is to complicate the very concept of “authenticity” in an invigorating way, and the chief impression with which I am left is of the stirring examples of scholars (all too few of them historians by profession) presenting an untidy and self-conflicted Johnson and defying the most imaginative of literary interpretations to rest content with any claim for a “complete” picture of the subject that ratifies the values of our, or any, time. The “historical” or authentic Johnson striven for here, is a complex figure, whose political affinities and loyalties can be discerned developing with the evolution of the dynastic settlement of the eighteenth century, but remaining rooted in a more tenaciously Jacobite and nonjuring mentality than much modern scholarship has been prepared to contemplate.
And that is about as authentic a Johnson (in a number of senses) as one is likely to find. We are indebted to the tenacity of the editors and their contributors for the reminder of how the collective engagement of scholars passionately committed to the claims of historical study can strike out, as it were, studies of great figures that reflect, in their lives and legacies, the ongoing conflicts and divisions that ought to mark any truly humane society—the “unfinished-ness” of the human condition.
Ian Crowe is a Senior Fellow of the Russell Kirk Center and director of the Edmund Burke Society of America. He is currently an associate professor of History at Brewton-Parker College, Mount Vernon, Georgia, and book review editor of the journal Studies in Burke and His Time.
Posted: July 1, 2013
Did you see this one?
The Rise of Books on the Fall
Volume 45, Number 1 (Winter 2007)