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Samuel Johnson
by [?]

John Hay has suggested that possibly the insight, piquancy and calm wisdom of Omar Khayyam are two-thirds essence of FitzGerald. If so, the joke is on Omar, not on FitzGerald.

A dozen of Johnson’s contemporaries wrote about him, and all make him out a profound scholar, a deep philosopher, a facile writer. Boswell by his innocent quoting and recounting makes his conversation outstrip all of his other accomplishments. He reveals the man by the most skilful indirection, and by leaving his guard down, often allows the reader to score a point. And of all devices of writing folk, none is finer than to please the reader by allowing him to pat himself on the back.

If a writer is too clever he repels. Shakespeare avoids the difficulty, and proves himself the master by keeping out of sight; Renan wins by a great show of modesty and deferential fairness; Boswell assumes an artlessness and ignorance that were really not parts of his nature. Every man who reads Boswell considers himself the superior of Boswell, and therefore is perfectly at home. It is not pleasant to be in the society of those who are much your superiors. Any man who sits in the company of Samuel Pepys for a half-hour feels a sort of half-patronizing pity for him, and therefore is happy, for to patronize is bliss.

If Boswell has reinforced fact with fiction, and given us art for truth, then his character of Samuel Johnson is the most vividly conceived and deeply etched in all the realm of books. But if he gives merely the simple facts, then Boswell is no less a genius, for he has omitted the irrelevant and inconsequential, and by playing off the excellent against the absurd, he has placed his subject among the few great wits who have ever lived–a man who wrote remarkably well, but talked infinitely better.

* * * * *

Montaigne advises young men that if they will fall in love, why, to fall in love with women older than themselves. His argument is that a young and pretty woman makes such a demand on a man’s time and attention that she is sure, eventually, to wear love to the warp. So the wise old Gascon suggests that it is the part of wisdom to give your affection to one who is both plain and elderly–one who is not suffering from a surfeit of love, and one whose head has not been turned by flattery. “Young women,” says the philosopher, “demand attention as their right and often flout the giver; whereas old women are very grateful.”

Whether Samuel Johnson, of Lichfield, ever read Montaigne or not is a question; but this we know, that when he was twenty-six he married the Widow Porter, aged forty-nine.

Assuming that Johnson had read Montaigne and was mindful of his advice, there were other excellent reasons why he did not link his fortunes with those of a young and pretty woman.

Johnson in his youth, as well as throughout life, was a Grind of the pure type. The Grind is a fixture, a few being found at every University, even unto this day. The present writer, once in a book of fiction, founded on fact, took occasion to refer to the genus Grind, with Samuel Johnson in mind, as follows: He is poor in purse, but great in frontal development.

He goes to school because he wishes to (no one ever “sent” a Grind to college). He has a sallow skin, a watery eye, a shambling gait, but he has the facts. His clothes are outgrown, his coat shiny, his linen a dull ecru, his hands clammy. He reads a book as he walks, and when he bumps into you, he always exculpates himself in Attic Greek.

This absent-mindedness and habit of reading on the street affords the Sport (another college type) great opportunity for the playing of pranks. It is very funny to walk along in front of a Grind who is reading as he walks, and then suddenly stop and stoop, and let the Grind fall over you; for the innocent Grind, thinking he has been at fault, is ever profuse in apologies.