September 02, 2014

The Great Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson aka Dr Johnson or 'Dictionary Johnson'
portrait by his close friend and co-founder with Johnson of 'The Club' Sir Joshua Reynolds
We all have our favorites and Dr. Johnson is the man I most respect and admire.  While he was a truly great man,  my deep affection is based on a man overcoming great adversity to realize his vast talents and, following the public acclaim and  prominence, how he then conducted himself to the benefit of others which I find so noble and inspiring.

This pic from the pre-opening party of the newly re-opened Red Lion Pub. This portrait, which GSL donated and will be re-framing with something more befittingly dignified, was at the hostess's podium under a bright light greeting everyone so I asked the hostess to please step away with it from the light to offer a better pic. After snapping this very poor pic, I asked the charming young lady if she knew of  "Samuel Johnson?.....Dr Johnson??......Dictionary Johnson???"
There is much work to be done.
All book lovers of my generation and older are at least vaguely familiar with the encounter that changed the face of English Literature. On May 16, 1763 in Davies' Book Shop in Covent Garden, a young Scot by the name of James Boswell finally fulfilled his great ambition of meeting the great Dr. Johnson.  Boswell had recently completed his Grand Tour and in his quest to collect 'Great Men' had recently met both Rousseau and Voltaire who were impressed with the eldest son of Lord Auchinleck but now he sought the ultimate prize...an acquaintanceship with Dr. Johnson. Johnson was well known to have a prejudice against Scots and, being in a foul mood, gave Boswell a rather rough reception which wounded the young upstart. The proprietor Davies later smoothed things over so that Dr Johnson and his 'Bozzy' soon became great friends and decades later Boswell bequeathed to posterity what is still considered the greatest biography of all time: The Life of Samuel Johnson LL.D
In the Red Lion, on permanent loan, is an entire shelf on Johnson including "The Life..." in 3 leather bound volumes- gilt edged and moire endsheeted on acid free paper from the GSL private library


To briefly summarize, Johnson came from humble, if fortuitous, origins as the son of an unsuccessful book merchant in the town of Litchfield and suffered from scrofula and what many modern scholars now assume to be Tourette's Syndrome. He grew to be quite tall-over 6 feet, thick set, and gangily long of limb; he was considered nearly a giant in those days. Johnson was from an early age considered ugly in appearance and of fearsome temperament. Johnson's prodigious intellect allowed him to excel at Oxford though he ran out of money after two years and had to leave without a degree (he was later awarded an honorary degree hence 'Dr Johnson'). After leaving Oxford, he came home to Litchfield and started a school which failed after a short time.  Among his students was David Garrick who would later make his way to London and become the greatest theatrical figure of the age.
Celebrated actor David Garrick. Portrait by Thomas Gainsborough
Garrick, like Johnson, was from Litchfield and a student at Johnson's school for boys.
Johnson married a much older widow who he left behind in Litchfield to make his mark in London (much like Shakespeare). Johnson over time distinguished himself as a great essayist in pamphlets such as The Rambler and the London booksellers commissioned him to write biographies on literary figures and to write what was essentially the first dictionary of the English language.  He made quite a name for himself with the high quality of his literary output; the Dictionary alone made him famous throughout the English speaking world, and his afternoons and evenings spent in taverns or drawing rooms were chronicled with great interest as he was supremely gifted in the art of conversation and didn't suffer fools gladly...he was sometimes described as a "virtuous bully".  His withering rejoinders were the talk of London the following day and soon made their way to every corner of the British Isles and across the Atlantic. When Boswell had Johnson join him on a tour of the Hebrides, they were astonished to find that at every port of call the entire population of that island or town turned out to greet them and see the great Dr Johnson.

James Boswell aka "Bozzie"about the time he first met Johnson.
portrait by George Willson 1765
What I most love about Dr Johnson isn't just the fact that none other than Harold Bloom (among many others) consider Johnson "the greatest literary critic in the English language or any other language", nor that he presided over a club of highly accomplished men who met periodically in taverns and whose collective achievements have been called by social scientist Charles Murray- the greatest period of human advancement (he refers to this period as "Johnson's London") since Ancient Rome, or that after Shakespeare he's the most quoted figure in the English language and considered it's greatest  conversationalist. No, what I most admire about Johnson wasn't just that he was a great man in areas of intense personal interest but also lived out a life little boys, such as I, were taught to lead by our mothers...that you are to behave as a gentleman (in the American sense of the word), act chivalrously towards women, and if you have the means to do so--help the less fortunate.

What is too often overlooked about Johnson was his championing the great women intellectuals of the day. The original Bluestockings loved having Dr Johnson in attendance at these gatherings of men of affairs and women of fashion and learning. The venerable Elizabeth Montagu was often the hostess with the formidable Elizabeth Carter urging the younger set "not to dare welcome in that foe to uplifting conversation....whist".  Johnson often urged these women to speak on issues he knew they could distinguish themselves and provide enlightenment to others.  Of Ms Carter, Johnson said she was the greatest Greek scholar in the land (and Johnson himself was quite formidable in Greek and Latin) which she must have greatly appreciated since women weren't then able to get a formal degree that announced their expertise.  Women such as Hannah More, Fanny Burney, Charlotte Lennox, and others Johnson praised to the skies wherever he went including to the men at his famous Club.
Elizabeth Montagu aka "Queen of the Bluestockings" Society hostess and great friend of  Dr Johnson. Johnson was a frequent guest in her drawing room and put the word out on the Bluestockings impressive intellectual attainments.
sketch of Mrs. Montagu by unknown artist
Johnson never had much money nor desire for it beyond being able to live a dignified existence.  His dress was usually described as slovenly.  One of the society hostesses who grew quite close to Johnson was Mrs.Thrale who set up a suite for him at the Thrale's estate in Streatham Park.  Johnson was later awarded a pension by the Crown of £300 per annum that provided for a very modest existence but which he considered "great splendor".  With his accommodations at The Thrales he was only home a few nights a week so he turned over his personal lodgings just off Fleet Street to a motley crew of misfits, to hear Boswell describe them, which included among others, an impoverished physician to the poor, Robert Levet, and a nearly destitute and cantankerous old blind spinster, Ms. Anna Williams, who always waited up for Dr Johnson late into the night so she could have the only hours of uplifting companionship she knew in the world.  Ms. Anna Williams was quite intelligent and a minor poet and playwright of some merit according to Johnson so I'm sure the tea and sympathy with her 'Sam', who she doted on, meant the world to her.

Dr Johnson was an ornament to any drawing room and always much in demand for the latter part of his life. Men of Title and Influence and Women of Fashion and Refinement desired his company but let's go back to that fateful day, May 16, 1763, to what is often overlooked or not even known about...that first encounter between Dr Johnson and "his Boswell".  Did you know what prompted the great Dr Johnson being out and about and stopping at Davies' Book Shop in such ill temper? Johnson was en route to see his old friend from Litchfield, David Garrick; the now very wealthy, fashionably married, and the most celebrated figure of the London stage. It seems that Johnson had forwarded a play, written by that poor old blind spinster living under his protection, Ms. Anna Williams, to Garrick who couldn't be bothered to give it a fair hearing.  Johnson wanted to have a word with his former pupil.  That is one interview I wish Boswell had witnessed.


29 comments:

  1. G, what a great history lesson for me today. I didn't know all these things about Dr Johnson. I especially love that he lived with very little but thought he lived in abundance. I also love that he was a champion of women and other misfits. What a lovely man. x

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    1. He was indeed Janet and it breaks my heart that he is now being forgotten by the younger generation who often value diversity over excellence.

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  2. Darling GSL
    As soon as I finished your post I skipped over to do some research on Dr Johnson to refresh my knowledge* of this fascinating man and I came across a quote that struck me as quite a fitting comment to your post:

    "In this work are exhibited, in a very high degree, the two most engaging powers of an author. New things are made familiar, and familiar things are made new."

    Good work. Im off to re-read.

    *by refresh I really mean familiarize as my working knowledge of Dr Johnson was on par with the pretty RLP hostess before I met you. I understand if things are awkward between us until I pick up my Johnson game.....

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    1. Dearest Bebe, you are a quick study so I have complete confidence in you.

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  3. What a delight. I've not had anyone bring up Dr. Johnson in casual conversation since college. Then, I knew him for his contributions to English literature but now I appreciate his sharp observations of the human condition: "All envy would be extinguished, if it were universally known that there are none to be envied." I like to keep this in mind when I wade through social media (though I do truly envy you for your pub!)

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    1. We anxiously await your arrival at The Red Lion dear Jen and I'm sure you'll enjoy the lively conversation that isn't often heard elsewhere.

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  4. Have been sitting with tostada y mermerlada some where on godforsaken meseta really enjoying reading this! Love that he chsmponed women... I wonder how mamy talented women artists did not get a fair

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    1. Thanks for checking in Jody and your Camino pilgrimage has put a spring in my step...without the blisters and dorm lodgings.
      I'll bet far too many talented women artists didn't get a fair shake...and what is often forgotten was how sometimes the most debilitating discouragement came from other women. When Mrs. Thrale was widowed and wished to remarry for love to an Italian dancing master, the scorn from Dr Johnson is well documented but even some of the Bluestockings turned on her too. Women can be slow to evolve too.

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  5. Love Dr. Johnson! I am tickled that you donated the portrait to your pub! How absolutely perfect!!!! Yes, bring him back! We need to bring a lot of the 18th and 19th century intellects back - they are sorely missed!

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    1. Dear Wendy, you must bring Barry to pay your respects to Dr Johnson at The Red Lion someday soon!

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  6. So entertaining! Love this post GSL. I read a book about one of the bluestockings, Mary Delany last year (and then wrote about it on the blog. She was a fascinating person http://adelaidevilla.blogspot.com.au/2013/08/mrs-delany-and-her-extraordinary-life.html )
    Love that you've put him in the Red Lion, amongst his life's work too.

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    1. Heidi, I loved your Mary Delany post and her name is only vaguely familiar although you have certainly piqued my interest! That period is so fascinating with the Scottish/French Enlightenment, the original Bluestockings, Johnson's Club, talk of revolutions swirling about, etc.

      I'm going to talk to Colin (proprietor of Red Lion Pub) about having some kind of 'Bluestocking Corner' as homage which might be a nice contrapuntal to all the military pomp and circumstance.

      ...I've always dreamt of being named 'Capability Brown'...."but just call me 'Cap'..."

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  7. Darling G,

    What a veritable intellectual cafe the Lion's Den is becoming.

    Dr. Johnson is an exceedingly worthy figurehead for the Red Lion. Lichfield's greatest son, as he is commonly known, we believe, lived a life not only full to overflowing but did indeed turn his shortcomings into strengths and his disadvantages into inspiration for his friends and followers. Most definitely a man of towering intelligence but one that he wore sensitively, using it as a tool for the support of others rather than a weapon to beat people with.

    And, how marvellous it would have been to be a 'Bluestocking' in the Johnson days. What spirit of adventure and daring these women had, with views to match. Perhaps the Red Lion blue stocking corner may vie with the hostess's podium for the command of attention when the fire of debate is at its height?!

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    1. Darlings Jane and Lance,
      I just knew you shared my high regard and love for Litchfield's greatest son but I do know that fiery debate will hush, trumpets will sound, and attention will be commanded towards the hostess's podium as your eagerly awaited entrance into The Red Lion is made...perhaps in a scene reminiscent of when adoring throngs welcomed Dr Johnson and Boswell ashore at those remote Hebridean ports.

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  8. I love the education I am getting at The Den and the inspiration to start reading more biographies! I shall see what falls of the shelves to dig into! Familiar with Dr. Johnson's essays as studied in college,but love this sidebar and tidbits of everyday life!
    So generous in spirit is your donation to the RLP ...what a great opportunity to educate those knowing so little of history! Cannot help but giggle at the thought of the Johnson's Club;-)

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    1. Thank you my dear Trudye and we look forward to welcoming you & Dr G to RLP this Fall...?...and thanks again for that very insightful report from Telluride.

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  9. Sounds too good to be true...wait, you did say ugly and slovenly. Quite a fascinating man.

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    1. BB, from all accounts Dr Johnson was quite a handful to be around and sometimes would take a position against his own beliefs just for the sake of an argument. Sometimes those arguments ended with hard feelings but Dr J always patched things up with people of good character.

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  10. Love that you keep him alive and it warms me to think that fan clubs also exist for characters other than Kim kardshian and Beyoncé so bravo

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    1. Naomi, we really do need to make a point to celebrate those most worthy. We are going to look to set up a literary club in The Red Lion for the Winter months with readings of poetry and short stories.

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    2. When, and WHAT DAYS?? I'd brave the snow and I-90 for that.

      rchl

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    3. Racheld, I'll keep you posted and it will be announced on The Den.

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  11. Such an aficionado as you must already enjoy the Dr. Sam:Johnson stories by dear Lillian de la T.

    Quite the fun episodes and adventures in the "tec" mode. And quite the interesting article you've done here---I'm in a history phase llately, and will have a look at his again.

    rchl

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    1. Racheld, I am not familiar with your dear Lillian de la T so I must investigate; thanks for sharing.

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  12. Interesting post. I didn't know anything about Dr. Johnson. Oddly enough I was just talking to a friend who has been researching Voltaire's lover, Emilie du Chatelet for a screenplay.

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    1. Emilie du Chatelet was a fascinating woman! Johnson would have shown her the highest respect. Does your friend have an actress in mind for the lead?...that's who I would pitch it to. I would love to see a movie about her!

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  13. I never even thought to ask her. If only I had checked your blog earlier. I just hung up the phone from her, ten minutes ago.
    I'll email her and let you know what she says.

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    1. Marion Cotillard or Eva Green would be good.

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    2. What great choices. I'd see that for sure!

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