**** ROTATE **** **** ROTATE **** **** ROTATE **** **** ROTATE ****

Find this Story

Print, a form you can hold

Wireless download to your Amazon Kindle

Look for a summary or analysis of this Story.

Enjoy this? Share it!


Samuel Johnson
by [?]

Quibblers possibly may arise and present Johnson’s definition of network–“anything reticulated or decussated at equal distances with interstices between the intersections”–but with the quibbler we have no time to dally. Some people insist on having their literature illustrated, just as others refuse to attend lectures that are not reinforced by a stereopticon.

Johnson had a style that is stately, dignified, splendid. It moves from point to point with absolute precision, and in it there is seldom anything ambiguous, muddy, confused or uncertain. Get down a volume of “Lives of the Poets,” and prove my point for yourself, by opening at any page. It was Boswell who set his own light, chatty and amusing gossip over against the wise, stately diction of Johnson, and allowed Goldsmith to say, “Dear Doctor, if you were to write a story about little fishes, you would make them talk like whales,” and the mud ball has stuck. The average man is much more willing to take the wily Boswell’s word for it than to read Johnson for himself.

The balanced power of Johnson’s English can not fail to delight the student of letters who cares to interest himself in the matter of sentence-building. Johnson handles a thought with such ease! He makes you think of the circus “strong man” who tosses the cannon-ball, marked “weight 250 lbs.” What if the balls are sometimes only wood painted black! Have we not been entertained? Read this specimen paragraph:

“Criticism is a study by which men grow important and formidable at very small expense. The power of invention has been conferred by Nature upon few, and the labor of learning those sciences which may by continuous effort be obtained is too great to be willingly endured; but every man can exert such judgment as he has upon the works of others; and he whom Nature has made weak, and idleness keeps ignorant, may yet support his vanity by the name of ‘critic,'”

But the greatest literary light of his day has been thrown into the shadow by a man whom no one suspected of being able to write entertainingly. In the world of letters the great Cham exists only as a lesser luminary; just as the once-noted novelist, George Henry Lewes, is now known only as the husband of George Eliot.

And yet no one is so rash as to say that the name of Boswell would now be known were it not for Johnson. And conversely (or otherwise), if it were the proper place, I could show that were it not for George Henry Lewes we should never have had “Adam Bede” or “The Mill on the Floss.”

Boswell wrote the best “Life” ever written. Nothing like it was ever written before; nothing to equal it has been written since. It has had hundreds of imitators, but no competitors. Matthew Arnold said that no man ever had so good a subject, but Arnold for the moment seemed to forget that Hawkins, a professional literary man, published his “Life of Johnson” long before Boswell’s was sent to the printer–and who reads Hawkins?

Surely Boswell had a great subject, and he rises to the level of his theme and makes the most of it. At times I have wondered if Boswell were not really a genius so great and profound that he was willing to play the fool, as Edgar in “Lear” plays the maniac, and allow himself to be snubbed (in print) in order to make his telling point! Millionaires can well afford to wear ragged coats. Second-rate man Boswell may have been, as he himself so oft admits, yet as a biographer he stands first in the front rank. But suppose his extreme ignorance was only the domino disguising a cleverness so subtle that it was not discovered until after his death! And what if he smiles now, as from out of Elysium he looks and beholds how, as a writer, he has eclipsed old Ursa Major, and thus clipped the claws that were ready for any chance Scot who might pass that way!