Cambridge Companion to Samuel Johnson

BayouHuguenot

Puritanboard Amanuensis
Clingham, Greg. The Cambridge Companion to Samuel Johnson. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Samuel Johnson wasn’t just a writer. He was a force of nature. You have to reckon with him, as is perhaps evident in that many writers in this volume have a “feminist” or “post-colonialist” bent to them. Despite (or because of) that, they are largely appreciative of Johnson. Johnson was honest. He was a Tory of the most manly sort. He was a monarchist who stood for a high church, yet he was also realistic about injustices in society.

We have noted that Johnson was a force of nature. In another sense, nature, or a nexus of universal constants, is the theme of his work. This is most evident in the chapters on Shakespeare and the Lives of the Poets.

Of particular interest is the chapter on Johnson’s Rambler essays, providing a unifying framework for reading them.

Poetry

Johnson’s poetic practice requires an intimate connection between the general and the particular (Weinbrot 35). Johnson uses the ancient concept of “concordia discord,” or a juxtaposing of contraries, to illustrate the passions in human nature.

The Essays and the Rambler

Johnson begins (or close to) his foray into essay writing with his famous “No. 4,” discussing whether an author had to be a good man to have good writing. Johnson backs off from this in his essays on Milton and in Ramblers 36 and 37.

Johnson instructs us in practical literary criticism in Ramblers 86, 88, 90, 92, and 94 (and 139-140). 86, 88, and 90 deal with Milton’s methods. The theme here is the dialectic of imitation and originality.

Johnson is indeed in favor of education for women (Korshin 62).

Johnson’s Politics

While he may have been England’s most famous Tory, nevertheless, one may not necessarily deduce positions from his Toryism (Folkenflik 102). The common ground of his Toryism is the relationship of religion to the state. While landed gentlemen, the Tories saw themselves as uniquely positioned to protect the poor and middle class from predatory interest. And on Folkenflik’s reading, it was the Tories, not the Whigs, who opposed both colonialism and slavery (105).

In light of all of this, his Toryism could overlap with gentlemen such as Edmund Burke on revolution.

Shakespeare

Johnson sees in Shakespeare a necessary link (yet distance) between “manners” and nature (Smallwood 147). It is a distinction between surface and depths, between how things appear (manners) and how they are (nature); yet, they can sometimes overlap. Manners reveal the nature.

Lives of the Poets

Nota bene: “It is impossible for any thought to be beautiful which is not just, and has not its foundation in the nature of things” (quoting Addison, 166). Johnson’s criticism is governed by three themes: beauty (Shakespeare), pathos (Milton), and sublime (Pope).

Writing like Johnson, a small tip: when delivering a forceful reply, Johnson not only used parallel terms but ends each parallel with a sharp monosyllable. Consider

“The notice which you have been pleased to take of my labours…has been delayed till I am indifferent and cannot enjoy it, till I am solitary and cannot impart it, till I am known and do not want it.”

This volume suffers some repetition but it is full of useful guides for reading Samuel Johnson.
 

bookslover

Puritan Board Doctor
I'm a long-time Johnson fan, and have just bought the three-volume edition of the Rambler essays (part of the Yale edition of his works). He was the first, and still among the most famous, of what today are known as "public intellectuals." I wonder why I didn't know about that now-23-year-old volume. Must investigate. Thanks for the post, fellow Johnsonian.

I expect to see Johnson among the saints when I get to heaven.
 
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