Based on what I’ve read so far in The Life of Johnson, Johnson was a lovely letter writer, although an unreliable one. Boswell includes quite a few of his more interesting letters — both business ones and personal ones — and in the personal letters he’s always apologizing for taking so long to write. Here are a couple passages I particularly liked, both written to his friend Joseph Baretti who was currently living in Milan:
My vanity, or my kindness, makes me flatter myself, that you would rather hear of me than of those whom I have mentioned, but of myself I have very little which I care to tell. Last winter I went down to my native town, where I found the streets much narrower and shorter than I thought I had left them, inhabited by a new race of people, to whom I was very little known. My play-fellows were grown old, and forced me to suspect that I was no longer young. My only remaining friend has changed his principles, and was become the tool of the predominant faction. My daughter-in-law, from whom I expected most, and whom I met with sincere benevolence, has lost the beauty and gaiety of youth, without having gained much of the wisdom of age. I wandered about for five days, and took the first convenient opportunity of returning to a place, where, if there is not much happiness, there is, at least, such a diversity of good and evil, that slight vexations do not fix upon the heart.
This is so typical of Johnson, I think; it’s a very sad passage, very beautifully written. If you’ve read Rasselas (and if not, why not?) the tone may feel familiar. Here is another typical passage:
I know my Baretti will not be satisfied with a letter in which I give him no account of myself; yet what account shall I give him? I have not, since the day of our separation, suffered or done any thing considerable. The only change in my way of life is, that I have frequented the theatre more than in former seasons. But I have gone thither only to escape from myself … I am digressing from myself to the play-house; but a barren plan must be filled with episodes. Of myself I have nothing to say but that I have hitherto lived without the concurrence of my own judgement; yet I continue to flatter myself, that, when you return, you will find me mended. I do not wonder that, where the monastick life is permitted, every order finds votaries, and every monastery inhabitants. Men will submit to any rule, by which they may be exempted from the tyranny of caprice and of chance. They are glad to supply by external authority their own want of constancy and resolution, and court the government of others, when long experience has convinced them of their own inability to govern themselves.
There is much in this passage that strikes a chord with me, from living “without the concurrence of my own judgement,” to the desire to mend, to recognizing the attractions of having someone else order your life for you. I don’t really want another person or an institution to order my life for me, but I do understand what he means by “the tyranny of caprice and chance.”