Sunday, March 2, 2014

Break from Fiction: Two books about Samuel Johnson and his world

In February I read two Johnsonian books, Dr. Johnson’s Household by Lyle Larson and Samuel Johnson and the Life of Reading by Robert DeMaria, Jr.

Samuel Johnson of course had a famous circle of friends who were successful members of the middle and upper classes: James Boswell, pioneering biographer and diarist; Joshua Reynolds, genius painter; Henry Thrale, rich businessman, and his wife, Hester, writer and patron of the arts, and on and on. But Johnson had another circle of intimates, poor people and people down on their luck whom he put up in his own household, partly out of charity and partly because Johnson had a (perhaps pathological) fear of being alone. In his book, Dr. Johnson’s Household, Lyle Larsen provides interesting descriptions of these characters. Most interesting are the accounts of Zachariah Williams, who had a crazy theory on how to figure longitude, and of Francis Barber’s sad life after Johnson’s death.

Since his teens Barber, a freedman, had been in Johnson’s employ, and for him Johnson was something of a surrogate father. Johnson, while genuinely affectionate and well-meaning, does not seem to have been a particularly good father figure. For one thing, Johnson stifled Barber's ambitions of being a sailor.  Johnson didn’t really need a servant, and in fact sent Barber off to school; during another period, Barber was working in an apothecary's shop.  But, when Barber ran off to join the Royal Navy, Johnson used his connections to get Barber out of the service, against Barber's will; Barber was enjoying life at sea.

Johnson left Barber quite a bit of money in his will, easily enough to live on, but Barber was a spendthrift and handled this money very poorly, living beyond his means and even asking Boswell, another spendthrift who was always in debt, for money. Maybe Barber was incorrigible, but I can't help but think that perhaps  Johnson could have expended a little more effort in teaching Barber how to handle finances. Of course, Johnson himself was not very good at handling money, and perhaps was ill-equipped to serve as anybody's financial role model.

Robert DeMaria is interested in the history of books and of reading. In his 1997 book Samuel Johnson and the Life of Reading he distinguishes between four types of reading, and uses Samuel Johnson, one of the most widely read men in history, as a vehicle to discuss these four types of reading. "Curious reading" is when we get lost in a book, like a novel or romance, and suspend criticism of the book. "Perusal" is when we read a book hoping to extract something from it; we are attentive, but the book is relatively easy to read. "Mere reading" is idle, superficial reading of something that may deserve skepticism, like when we read a newspaper or magazine. "Study" is when we focus on a work which deserves respect, perhaps committing passages to memory; Johnson studied the Bible and Virgil.

DeMaria’s book provides some interesting information on 17th and 18th century “self-help” and religious books that there is almost no chance I will ever actually read, but which were very important to 18th century readers like Johnson. DeMaria judges that Johnson and others “perused” these books, hoping to find advice on how to live and also comfort when faced by religious doubts. The section on mere reading includes interesting descriptions of 18th century newspapers.

I most enjoyed the section on “curious reading.” Johnson was addicted to fiction, taking great enjoyment in reading “heroic romances” (adventure stories about knights), as well as contemporary sentimental novels like Henry Fielding’s Amelia. But at the same time he was very skeptical, even hostile, to fiction, judging it often to be a waste of time and sometimes a negative influence. Johnson blamed some of his own career problems on the “unsettled turn of mind” that reading “extravagant fictions” in his youth had cultivated in him. Recognizing the power of fiction, in public Johnson always praised fiction that promoted virtue, like the novels of Samuel Richardson, even as he devoured frivolous or sensual works in private.

Something I had never heard before, or forgotten, was that one of Johnson’s favorite books was the Letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, which describe her experiences in Turkey traveling with her husband, the British ambassador to Turkey from 1716 to 1718. Johnson was always interested in the Orient, and Montagu’s book, as evidenced by excerpts provided by DeMaria, includes titillating descriptions of life in a seraglio.

Samuel Johnson and the Life of Reading
is quite scholarly; DeMaria refers to Habermas and Foucault and other esoteric thinkers, and revisits the topic of his 1993 biography of Johnson, The Life of Samuel Johnson: A Critical Biography, which took the interesting tack of arguing that Johnson’s dream was to be a member of the small international elite of neo-Latin poets. However, the book is also full of anecdotes about Johnson’s life, references to Johnson’s writing, and information about popular literature of his period, and so entertains as it expands our knowledge of Johnson’s opinions and of 18th century intellectual life.

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