I shall not think my employment useless or ignoble, if by my assistance foreign nations, and distant ages, gain access to the propagators of knowledge, and understand the teachers of truth.
(--from the preface to the Dictionary)
Back, once again, to the eighteenth century (as I've mentioned before, a favoured haunt of mine). This time, to Samuel Johnson (1709-84) (who corresponded, on occasion, with Lady Mary Wortley Montagu... it all links!), in the shape of Penguin's Selected Writings. As the title would suggest, this collection is a sampler of a long and extremely diverse career, in the shape of essays, letters, a travel narrative and extensive extracts from longer works (his fascinating Shakespeare scholarship, his - rather dull, I thought - Lives of various poets). It offers a snapshot both of Johnson's development as a writer and thinker, and of the professional writer's life - in all its opportunities, hardships, and flattery of patrons - in eighteenth century England.
My own mental image of Dr Johnson will forever be his Blackadder incarnation: Robbie Coltrane's bewigged intellectual, pretentious, overbearing - possessed of a bellowing sense of humour and an irascible temper. As so often with Blackadder, this portrait would seem to be only a few notches up from the reality: Johnson was intemperate (in editor Patrick Cruttwell's words, he had "a tendency to sudden and disproportionate violence" both in his life and his writings). He was an angry young man, a satirist in perpetual opposition the government (including but not limited to staunch support of the Jacobite cause), who could never resist a good argument for argument's sake. He longed to live up to his own Anglical ideal of 'respectability' (sober restraint, high social standing), but was an incurable contrarian. At the same time, he was a firm believer in social hierarchy who could never overcome the limitations of his own low status and concomitant financial problems; poverty drove him out of Oxford and dogged his subsequent career at every step, and probably fuelled some of his anger.
The sense of humour - with, at times, an appealing line in self-deprecation - shows through, too. One of his Dictionary entries ("Pastern. The knee of an horse.") is glossed by Cruttwell with the following anecdote:
Johnson's best-known mistake - it is really part of a horse's foot - which owes its fame largely to his cheerful explanation of it to a feminine inquirer: "Ignorance, madam, pure ignorance."
Johnson lived at a time when population growth, urbanisation, rising literacy and increased leisure time combined to create both a sizeable reading public, and the industry to supply it - making it possible, for the first time, to earn a living by writing, without resorting to official patronage (possible; but difficult, as we shall see). Periodicals like Addison's Spectator or Johnson's Rambler and Idler provided a lively and often very critical commentary on contemporary issues. Topics covered in this book's selections from The Idler range from all-too-familiar complaints about the English weather (as popular then as today, apparently):
The rainy weather which has continued the last month, is said to have given great disturbance to the inspectors of barometers. The oraculous glasses have deceived their votaries; shower has succeeded shower, though they predicted sunshine and dry skies; and by fatal confidence in these fallacious promises, many coats have lost their gloss, and many curls been moistened to flaccidity.
(--5 Aug 1758)
...to a scathing critique of the war with France for the American colonies:
But the time is now approaching when the pride of usurpation shall be crushed, and the cruelties of invasion shall be revenged. The sons of rapacity have now drawn their swords upon each other, and referred their claims to the decision of war; let us look unconcerned upon the slaughter, and remember that the death of every European delivers the country from a tyrant and a robber; for what is the claim of either nation, but the claim of the vulture to the leveret, of the tiger to the fawn? Let them continue to dispute their title to regions which they cannot people, to purchase by danger and blood the empty dignity of dominion over mountains which they will never climb...
(--8 Sept 1759)
Yet despite the new avenues that opened up to wielders of the pen in the eighteenth century, certain hard truths remained - the difficulty of getting poetry published, for example. The explosion of readership helped publications pay for themselves to a greater degree than before; at the same time, the rapid growth of the publishing industry meant many more outlets for writing existed. The former meant a constant awareness of what would entertain the public. This was nothing new; indeed, Johnson recognised exactly the same quality in Shakespeare, who, he wrote,
perhaps excelled all but Homer in securing the first purpose of a writer, by exciting restless and unquenchable curiosity, and compelling him that reads his work to read it through.
It also meant that flattery might still be required to draw the eye of a potential publisher or patron to one's work, as a letter of 1738, from Johnson to Edward Cave, proves:
When I took the liberty of writing to you a few days ago, I did not expect a repetition of the same pleasure so soon; for a pleasure I shall always think it, to converse in any manner with an ingenious and candid man; but having the enclosed poem in my hands to dispose of for the benefit of the author [...] I believed I could not procure more advantageous terms from any person than from you, who have so much distinguished yourself by your generous encouragement of poetry; and whose judgement of that art nothing but your commendation of my trifle can give me any occasion to call in question.
Nor did a career in writing provide much of a living, particularly when one was not well-off to begin with. Circumstances forced Johnson, in 1762, to accept a state pension of £300 per year. This was a condition he had long deplored. In his Dictionary, only a few years earlier, for example, he offered the following definition of the term:
Pension. An allowance made to any one without an equivalent. In England it is generally understood to mean pay given to a state hireling for treason to his country.
Taking the pension seems to have dampened his satirical fire, whether because of a need to toe a party line, or simply because of the removal of his poverty. As his contemporaries moved towards Romanticism, Johnson's writing became increasingly reactionary and conservative (the later works in this collection aren't half as much fun as the earlier).
Johnson's earliest literary endeavours were poetical. His poems show his characteristic anger, and give an early taste of his lifelong concern with the moral dimensions of writing - its capacity to improve society. Take this comment on Archbishop Laud, in 'The Vanity of Human Wishes':
Nor deem, when learning her last prize bestows,
The glitt'ring eminence exempt from foes;
See when the vulgar 'scape, despis'd or aw'd,
Rebellion's vengeful talons seized on Laud.
From meaner minds, tho' smaller fines content,
The plunder'd palace or sequester'd rent;
Mark'd out by dangerous parts he meets the shock,
And fatal Learning leads him to the block:
Around his tomb let Art and Genius weep,
But hear his death, ye blockheads, and weep.
The same concern runs through all his works (not least the Dictionary, in which Johnson illuminates his definitions with reference to quotations, all from authors whom - as Boswell later observed - he approved of in a moral sense). To Johnson, this morality was very much bound up with religion, especially in his later life; in a letter of 1766, he wrote, "Christianity is the highest perfection of humanity". Occasional extracts from his journal - in which he discusses his Biblical readings - together with the lengthy prayers he wrote, make clear how precious his religion was to him.
Finally, this made me grin (I doubt Johnson would have thought much of us lit-bloggers ;-)),
I hope it will give comfort to great numbers who are passing thro' the world in obscurity, when I inform them how easily distinction may be obtained. All the other powers of literature are coy and haughty, they must be long courted, and at last are not always gained; but criticism is a goddess easy of access and forward of advance, who will meet the slow and encourage the timorous; the want of meaning she supplies with words, and the want of spirit she recompenses with malignity.
--The Idler, 9 June 1759