My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This Penguin Classics collection of essays by the great English critic and moralist Samuel Johnson is devoted largely to his periodical writing. In its introduction, the editor David Womersley notes that Johnson was known only (if at all) as an editor, lexicographer, and occasional poet when he began, in 1750, to publish short essays under the name The Rambler. Later in the decade, he began two subsequent series, The Adventurer and The Idler. “In his view the periodical essay derived from conduct books,” Womerseley observes: Johnson writes to help people improve their morality and their behavior. This goal accounts for what might initially repel contemporary readers from these essays.
Nowadays, every essay about the genre of the essay begins with a reminder that the very word “essay” is etymologically related to the concept of trying, of making an attempt, of experimenting; so we expect that every great instance of this literary form will show a mind at variance with itself and the world, will display on the page the author’s second thoughts, misgivings, and self-contradictions. Johnson’s periodical essays, on the other hand, read more like sermons, or like an intermediate form between the sermon and its current secularized avatar, self-help.
Johnson’s essays are shaped like sermons. They tend to begin with an epigraph, a text for commentary, though usually a classical rather than biblical one; then they assert large generalities about one or another aspect of human experience, and then they narrow to the essay’s particular topic, a subcategory of the generality just offered, discussed with examples and illustrations, before concluding with an exhortation about how to behave.
Moreover, at a first glance, Johnson’s advice seems too dour and conservative to furnish the pleasure that literary reading should afford. He recommends that literature itself always be morally improving, as he goes on to censure idleness, procrastination, avarice, delusion, and other types of human folly.
Given these didactic aims, understandable in a cleric or guru but not in line with our idea of a literary genius, how has Johnson earned his reputation as perhaps the greatest of English essayists and critics? In The Western Canon, Harold Bloom, hailing Johnson as “the canonical critic,” provides a clue when he writes:
Like his true precursor, whoever it was that wrote Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Bible, Johnson is disturbing and unconventional, a moralist altogether idiosyncratic. Johnson is to England what Emerson is to America, Goethe to Germany, and Montaigne to France: the national sage. But Johnson as much as Emerson is an original writer of wisdom, even though he insists that his morality follows Christian, classical, and conservative ideologies.
Bloom’s praise for Johnson’s originality alerts us to look for more than just moralistic truisms in the work, while his comparison to Ecclesiastes alludes to the nearly nihilistic undertone of despair in Johnson’s writing, writing constantly alive to the intractable reality of suffering and death. Like Emerson, with whom he otherwise has little in common, Johnson recommends energetic work or even play to parry, or at least to endure, the blows of life.
But I differ with Bloom when he judges Johnson’s self-understanding (“Christian, classical, and conservative”) to be delusive. Though he mocks the Stoics and Epicureans, Johnson has what I think of as a classical temperament, one that tries to thrive in the darkness of human uncertainty and to display in the face of death’s inevitability a heroic composure. And his conservatism is genuine, if conservatism implies a belief in both the fragility and the necessity of longstanding human institutions, as well as the need for individual self-control and self-reliance given humanity’s tendency to decay into idle and destructive pleasures if left without a sense of purpose.
Even Johnson’s Christianity, which is admittedly more evidenced by his platitudes than by his literary allusions or aesthetic tastes, shows itself through the compassion his social and political writings display: he enjoins sympathy for women forced by need into prostitution, calls for the abolition of debtors’ prisons and for the death penalty in cases of minor offense, inveighs against the tyranny of fathers and against what was not yet called predatory lending, and laments the oppression and destruction of Native Americans. In the The Idler, he even sympathetically composes a fictional speech by an Indian chief attempting to rouse his desolate compatriots with visions of European defeat:
But the time, perhaps, 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? (The Idler, No. 81)
It is all the more important to remember Johnson’s compassion when we consider his general polemical aim in writing moral essays. Womersley’s introduction provides context:
Just as Johnson was politically an internal exile (a stubborn Tory obliged to live under Hanoverian monarchs and of a world in which the politics, irrespective of which particular party happened to be in or out, were fundamentally shaped by the Revolution Principles of 1688) so, too, he was estranged from the fashionable ethical theories of his time, the spokesman for a conscious ethics of the will at a time when the contrary theory of morals was dominant. […] Johnson…was…an opponent of affective theories of ethics; that is to say, theories which located the origin of moral discriminations in involuntary sentiments, rather than conscious and reasoned judgments.
Johnson was opposed to the theory that morality comes, as if spontaneously, from emotion. (This theory is as fashionable now as it was then; today it travels under the name of “empathy.”) We spend our days in terror of death, immersed in habit, and seduced by pleasure, which means, according to Johnson, that we are constantly misled by our emotions; for this reason, morality needs to rest on a more secure foundation.
He therefore that would govern his actions by the laws of virtue, must regulate his thoughts by those of reason (The Rambler, No.8)
Writing in this argumentative vein could easily prove tiresome, though. Essays listing our duties might lack variety or come to seem unforgivably tendentious. But Johnson earns his moral authority because he does not pretend that life is good or easy. You could make a digest of his writings that eliminates the moral recommendations and keeps only the grim existential realism. It would read like Schopenhauer, and it makes sense that Beckett admired Johnson.
But for sorrow there is no remedy provided by nature; it is often occasioned by accidents irreparable, and dwells upon objects that have lost or changed their existence; it required what it cannot hope, that the laws of the universe should be repealed; that the dead should return, or the past should be recalled. (The Rambler, No. 47)
Johnson even suppressed in a later collected edition of his work an issue of The Idler that tells a parable about an older vulture instructing a younger in how their kind benefits from humanity’s inexplicable urge to self-destruction in war and violence, unexampled elsewhere in nature.
In one of my favorite essays from The Rambler, Johnson ruminates on the perennial conflict between youth and age. As we get older, time compels us, by its lessons on the limitations and finitude of life, to become more conservative (temperamentally, if not politically). Youth believes the cautions offered by the aged to be mere bigoted lies, because to young people the world is an open and pleasurable field of new experiences.
Johnson allows that the old are correct in their assessment: the world is rather a moral maze where dangers physical and metaphysical lurk on every side, and people should therefore behave with prudence. But, he strikingly continues, the aged should not press their case too forcefully, because if the young knew what the world really had in store for them, they would not be able to live at all:
They who imagine themselves entitled to veneration by the prerogative of longer life, are inclined to treat the notions of those whose conduct they superintend with superciliousness and contempt, for want of considering that the future and the past have different appearances; that the disproportion will always be great between expectation and enjoyment, between new possession and satiety; that the truth of many maxims of age gives too little pleasure to be allowed till it is felt; and that the miseries of life would be increased beyond all human power of endurance, if we were to enter the world with the same opinions as we carry from it. (The Rambler, No. 196)
What to do in such a miserable world? Johnson concludes the aforementioned Rambler essay about sorrow: “The safe and general antidote against sorrow is employment.” His recommendation of energy is a constant throughout the book, and the one that is most likely to appeal to contemporary readers, despite our historical and cultural distance from 18th-century London.
Johnson prescribes work as an antidote to what we would call anxiety and depression, and he insists that it is necessary to any achievement. He is also canny about how we delude ourselves with busywork without actually accomplishing anything (“no man ever excelled in painting, who was eminently curious about pencils and colours”), and about how we propose impossible tasks for ourselves as a form of self-sabotage, excusing our failures by making them inevitable.
His most practical recommendation, which still holds true, is to work constantly at your task, but in small and non-fatiguing increments. He notes that many illustrious figures accomplished great things in the arts and sciences while leading difficult lives marked by poverty, exile, or other calamities, and he advises that they did so not by herculean and exhausting efforts but by “improving” each free moment with useful labor. This advice has not aged one bit: write 500 words a day, and you’ll have written a book in less than a year.
It is as a literary critic that Johnson is perhaps best remembered. This collection does not have a literary focus per se, but the topic recurs throughout the book, including in a highly technical discussion of Milton’s prosody. Johnson is humbling and wise on the uncertainty of literary reputation, both while authors are living and after they have died. (He was not, it should be said, a famous author before he began The Rambler; these essays themselves made his name.) He tries to explain why most authors are left behind by time:
No place affords a more striking conviction of the vanity of human hopes, than a publick library; […] Among those whose reputation is exhausted in a short time by its own luxuriance, are the writers who take advantage of present incidents or characters which strongly interest the passions, and engage universal attention. (The Rambler, No. 106)
In other words, if you write for topical interest, your writing will fade with the controversies you address. After 100 years, or even after 25, no one will care about, or even be able to comprehend, your anti-Trump polemic or your #resistance-inspired dystopia. (Future readers may not even understand the preceding sentence.)
In The Rambler No. 4, the most famous of these essays among literary critics, Johnson observes that the type of fiction coming to predominate in the 18th century “may be termed not improperly the comedy of romance,” by which older words he seems to indicate what we would call the realist novel. He approves of this development away from the more fantastical and thus escapist strains of romance, as he prefers literature that is most likely to inculcate moral knowledge in the reader: this includes not only realism in fiction, but, as later essays explain, also biography and autobiography in nonfiction. All these genres exemplify morality through the particular stories of fictional characters or real people that the common reader can identify with:
In the romances formerly written, every transaction and sentiment was so remote from all that passes among men, that the reader was in very little danger of making any applications to himself; the virtues and crimes were equally beyond his sphere of activity; and he amused himself with heroes and with traitors, deliverers and persecutors, as with beings of another species, whose actions were regulated upon motives of their own, and who had neither faults nor excellencies in common with himself.
But when an adventurer is levelled with the rest of the world, and acts in such scenes of the universal drama, as may be the lot of any other man; young spectators fix their eyes upon him with closer attention, and hope, by observing his behaviour and success, to regulate their own practices, when they shall be engaged in the like part. (The Rambler, No. 4)
Johnson might, in spirit anyway, like our autofiction, even as he would be disgusted with our superheroes. Interestingly, he also observes that history as a literary genre has the same fault as fantasy: both are too distant from people’s ordinary everyday lives to be morally relevant.
This preference for a mimetic literature of the self accords with our own sense of the 18th century as the age of the novel and of burgeoning individualism. It was also the great age of epistolarity: some of Johnson’s essays take the form of narrative letters that give his readers a comic or sentimental glimpse of people’s real lives, usually to make one or another moral or political point. Most notable among these texts is the harrowing novelistic or Richardsonian tale of Misella, a young woman sexually groomed from girlhood by an abusive custodian and then driven into prostitution.
Johnson’s literary ideas are more nuanced than his praise for moral fiction might suggest. Consider his still-relevant discussion of literary originality. Writers are too often criticized for plagiarizing each other’s ideas, he says. But both fiction and nonfiction writers address themselves to experience and morality, which should, he argues, be more or less universal once you have gotten beyond the costume of custom and circumstance. There are, consequently, no original ideas, either for stories or for their morals. The proper arena for literary invention is, to use a later critical vocabulary, not content but form.
Bloom notes that Johnson considered “invention” the highest art of poetry; for Johnson this means the line-by-line and sentence-by-sentence development of original combinations of imagery, ideas, and sentiments:
Johnson’s melancholia…taught him to value invention all the more highly, because the cure for melancholia involves a continual discovery and rediscovery of the possibilities of life.
We read literature, then, to be distracted by possibility from the inevitability of misery and death. Early in The Rambler, Johnson proclaims:
The natural flights of the human mind are not from pleasure to pleasure, but from hope to hope. (The Rambler, No. 2)
One of his purposes is to deliver us from false hopes to realities. But in the intelligence of his mental fight against a brilliantly evoked despair, he is a model of real hope. Given our limitations, he everywhere implies, we should do our best. As long as it is our best, it will, whether we superficially succeed or not, be enough.
The traveller that resolutely follows a rough and winding path, will sooner reach the end of his journey, than he that is always changing his direction, and wastes the hours of day-light in looking for smoother ground and shorter passages. (The Rambler, No. 63)