The Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the friends who shaped an age

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Puritanboard Clerk
Damrosch, Leo. The Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends who Shaped an Age. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019.

This isn’t a biography of Samuel Johnson. It is a biography of the social nexus in which Johnson found himself. It also highlights things that Boswell (for whatever reason) didn’t mention. It also tells you the grit and glory of 18th century London.

This is a “good” book in the plain sense of the word. We call books “good” because we want to keep reading them. They are just interesting. This book is like that. As it is, that isn’t all remarkable. Many books are good. This book, however, continues to be good while never sacrificing scholarly rigor.

While we should beware of a historicist reading of science, we must rejoice that science did kill several bad things--Freud’s psychoanalysis and the “humours” theory of medicine. Freud is wrong because genetics explains more than simply accusing everyone of repressed sexual fantasies. Of course, Freud predates Johnson. The point here is that later interpreters of Johnson misunderstood him by subjecting him to psychoanalysis.

As to medicine, “According to a medical theory that went back to ancient Greece and was still respected, diseases were caused by an imbalance of four bodily fluids or “humors”--blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile” (17). The solution was usually to constantly drain the blood. Scripture, however, teaches us that “the life is in the blood.”

This book is 50% Boswell, 30% Johnson, and the remainder dealing with “The Club,” the distinguished gathering of the greatest intellectuals in Britain: Edmund Burke, Edward Gibbon, and others.

This means that Damrosch has to give analyses of Burke, Adam Smith, and Edward Gibbon, and he is mostly successful at that.

James Boswell

Boswell’s life was never boring--he made sure of that. Boswell’s faults, often hinted at, are placed fully in the open. He was a lecher. Indeed, scholars surmise, based on Boswell’s journals, that “by the time of his marriage at age of twenty-nine, Boswell had had liaisons with four actresses, three wives plus Rousseau’s companion Therese, and three middle-class women, as well as brief encounters with over sixty prostitutes--and that’s assuming he recorded them all” (234). His wife probably qualifies for sainthood.

I suspect, though I cannot prove, that Boswell never got over Hume’s attack on human nature and personhood. For Hume there is no continuous personal identity, for there is no such thing as a stable essence. There is only a “stream of sense impressions that the mind has from moment to moment” (76). Philosophically, this is sheer idiocy and Thomas Reid made short work of it. Existentially, however, Boswell found it quite compelling.

Edmund Burke

The section on Burke gives the American reader a good understanding of English politics. A Whig didn’t necessarily mean a radical. It usually meant someone who allied himself with the economic interests of London. This often meant expanding Britain’s empire by war. Tories, by contrast, allied themselves with Church and Crown. Nevertheless, the two often married each other.

Burke, for example, thought of himself as a Whig. However, he was such a traditionalist that he could probably have passed as a Tory. Like Johnson, he saw “subordination” as the key structure of “deference that kept society cooperative and peaceful” (165-166). Burke might have opposed taxing the Americans. He never thought, however, that they should themselves. Nor did he really think of that of the people in general. He believed in “government for the people by the entitled few” (165).


The reader is also urged to pay attention to the chapters on Adam Smith and Edward Gibbon. This book is a magnificent picture of 18th century London.

Interesting notes

<<<Bath houses usually doubled as brothels (9).
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