I had known the name of Samuel Johnson, mostly as the object of James Boswell’s famous biography, but had known almost nothing about him before reading John Wain’s 1974 biography of him. Judging from that, Johnson seems to have been a man entitled to a great deal of esteem.
He was a man who suffered much. He caught scrofula as an infant, leaving him short-sighted and pock marked. He also had a variety of nervous tics, so that he was never physically attractive. His family had little money, and was not entirely happy, but they did have books, as his father was a book-seller, and Johnson early demonstrated that he had a powerful mind, which was to enable him to, after much struggle, earn a comfortable living after coming from almost nothing.
His mind enabled him to attend Oxford, but not to stay long. He tried to become a schoolmaster, but was unsuccessful. After that he went to London and became a writer at a time that writing didn’t pay well at all. He was able to survive, as many around him were not, and then, with the project of his famous dictionary (one of the few other things I’d heard about him), finally began making a secure living. That was after about 20 years of struggle.
The thing I find so admirable about him is his compassion. He knew many people that most would shun, and often found redeeming qualities in them. And he was angered at anyone who took a frivolous view of human suffering. Some self-made men say that if they can do it, anyone can. Johnson saw deeper than that. “Johnson was so achingly aware of the vast quantity of suffering that went on around him, and the gratuitousness of so much of it, that he always preferred to draw people’s attention to the plight of the victims than to encourage them to be complacent about it.”
A writer named Soame Jenyns wrote A Free Inquiry into the Nature and Origin of Evil, which Johnson reviewed. The theory expressed was of a great chain of being, courtesy of Leibnitz, in which there are beings both higher and lower than mankind. Johnson didn’t care for this argument, but he was particularly offended by Jenyns’ suggestion that each level of being has advantages that balance its disadvantages, and what Jenyns thought these were. Thus, the sufferings of humans may provide an advantage to beings on a higher level, as the sufferings of animals in a slaughterhouse provide an advantage to humans. Therefore, “…the poor are exempt from many annoyances that beset the rich; that to be ill is to know certain kinds of enjoyment denied to those who are welll; that to be foolish, or even mad, may be quite pleasant when seen from inside; that ignorance is a positive advantage in people born to a low station, since the poor are made comfortable by ignorance, and not to be robbed of it…”
Johnson replies: “Life must be seen before it can be known. This author and Pope perhaps never saw the miseries which they imagine thus easy to be borne. The poor indeed are insensible of many little vexations which sometimes embitter the possessions and pollute the enjoyments of the rich. They are not pained by casual incivility, or mortified by the mutilation of a compliment, but this happiness is like that of a malefactor who ceases to feel the cords that bind him when the pincers are tearing his flesh.”
It’s easy for those who live a comfortable life to imagine other people’s suffering to minor or imaginary. It may also be easy for someone who suffers to feel that he or she is the only person who does. This error Johnson never falls into. He knows he suffers, but also knows many people around him also suffer, and does what he can to help many of them, many of whom most people would shun because they’re unattractive in various ways.
Eugene O’Neill, the great American playwright of the last century saw this too. His last play, A Moon for the Misbegotten, based on his brother’s sad life, illusrtrated that broken people can understand each other in ways people outside their situation can’t.
The author says of Johnson that he never let go of a friendship, whether or not the person was wealthy or poor, attractive or not, intelligent or not. One of his friends had been a talented writer who claimed to be the illegitimate son of a noblewoman, who had given him up for adoption and tried to ensure that he never found out who she was. We may or may not believe this story, but Johnson believed it, and persisted in friendship with the man, despite the man’s self-destructive behaviors. The man drank, quarreled with the people who tried to help him (and there were a good many of those), wasted money when he did have it, and ended in prison.
While Johnson had many poor friends, or people in whom no one else could see any virtue, he also had many wealthy and intelligent friends. One of his friends formed a club around him, where they could meet and talk about anything of interest, and being active and intelligent, many things were interesting to them. At one point they considered starting or reviving a college, and determined that among them the only important subject they couldn’t teach was mathematics. Surely a great range of learning.
In one discussion Edmund Burke says that, having had a great deal of experience, he’s learned to think better of mankind. Johnson says, “From my experience, I have have found them worse in commercial dealings, more disposed to cheat, than I had any notion of; but more disposed to do one another good than I had conceived…As it is said of the greatest liar, that he tells more truth than falsehood; so it may be said of the worst man, that he does more good than evil.”
This is a generous observation, by a man whose life might not have predisposed him to generosity. But Johnson was always generous, and to a great many people. The work by Jenyns, mentioned above, was one of the few that he full-out attacked. He believed that people could agree reasonably.
The dictionary he compiled is one of the reasons he’s still remembered, and Wain says that though his was not the first in England, it served a particular use in standardizing English spelling, which could be wildly individualistic. He had two other projects of similar scope: An anthology of Shakespeare’s plays, which he undertook to reprint after purging the texts of various corruptions, and commenting on. According to Wain, the comments are the most interesting part of the work, as Johnson knew Shakespeare’s work intimately, practically able to recite each play. He could point out mistakes, or where Shakespeare had been lazy or careless, but revered the writer for seeing more deeply into the human condition, of whatever social level, than almost anyone else.
The other was an anthology of Lives of the English poets. In practice, he took no poets earlier than 1660, and didn’t include living poets, but it was still a huge task. As with the Shakespeare anthology, the fascination is largely in what it reveals about Johnson in his comments.
His other major work came from his trip through highland Scotland with James Boswell. He talked with as many people as he could, from all walks of life, using interpreters as necessary, and entered people’s houses, from the most primitive huts to the comfortable houses of ministers and lairds. He had hoped, but known he wasn’t being realistic, to see Scotland’s ancient life, but found instead a country in decline. The last Stuart rebellion had been in 1745, and with its defeat the English had taken the country over and changed everything, to the point that a great many were leaving for America. Each that left left a gap in the community, and the land was becoming depopulated. Johnson saw this as inhumane and not in the interest of the Scottish people, though they were divided, with the lowland Scots knowing nothing of the highlander’s life, and vice versa. He saw nothing good and conquest and colonization, and though he was proud to be English, didn’t agree with many things that England did.
He later traveled to Wales and France, but wasn’t as impressed with what he found there, perhaps because he traveled with wealthy friends and couldn’t come in contact with ordinary people as much.
These wealthy friends gave him perhaps the most comfortable time of his life, in allowing him to live with them for large parts of each year, being available for conversation, and making sure he had what he needed and wanted. Eventually, though husband died, and Johnson and the widow fell out, something very painful for both. At that point it was just a matter of time till Johnson declined and died, his health never having been good, and since he was approaching his mid-seventies.
Wain writes this biography about a subject not just interesting, but one that he admires wholeheartedly. Johnson was a learned man in the best sense: steeped in literature, but a participant in the wider world who was always curious about it and wishing to meet as many people of different sorts as he could, and becoming friends of many of them. He was, unfortunately, a frequently unhappy man: deeply religious, but with a religion that loaded him with guilt, because, Wain believes, of his sexual feelings, which he was most of his life unable to express very freely. In his kindness and generosity to others, he seems to have largely made up for this, though, and Wain says that in his last days, when he knew he was going to die, he seems to have come to some kind of peace, and was able to face death in that state of mind. Surely something each of us must desire for ourselves, and surely a man worth emulating.