The Life

I have been reading such good posts on 17C and 18C topics, that I am inspired to add something from my own 18C read, Boswell’s Life of Johnson (I’m speeding my way toward the halfway point right now). First of all, here’s Johnson on literary criticism. When a friend says about a new tragedy called Elvira, “We have hardly a right to abuse this tragedy; for bad as it is, how vain should either of us be to write one not near so good,” he responds with this:

Why no, Sir; this is not just reasoning. You may abuse a tragedy, though you cannot write one. You may scold a carpenter who has made you a bad table, though you cannot make a table. It is not your trade to make tables.

There’s a certain amount of sense to this, although I think having tried to write a tragedy might give one better insight into how hard it is to write one. But if we think of writing as a craft that some people have taken special pains to learn, then why not expect the best and be critical if we don’t get it? Johnson’s attitude implies that we can recognize quality in something even if we can’t produce that quality ourselves. I kind of like the idea of writing as a craft that a writer sets out to learn, just as a person might set out to learn carpentry. This strikes me as a very 18C, pre-Romantic way of thinking about writing, and, not having been one to buy into the myth of the larger-than-life Romantic artist (or having been thoroughly disabused of that notion in my education so that I forget ever having believed in it at all), it appeals to me.

And here is a conversation on the difference between Richardson and Fielding (and if you want to know something about the 18C novel, you can’t do better than to read Richardson’s Pamela followed by Fielding’s Shamela and Joseph Andrews, which will give you two very different views on what the novel can do, two views that remained in tension with one another for a long, long time):

Fielding being mentioned, Johnson exclaimed, “he was a blockhead;” and upon my [Boswell] expressing my astonishment at so strange an assertion, he said, “What I mean by his being a blockhead is, that he was a barren rascal.” Boswell: “Will you not allow, Sir, that he draws very natural pictures of human life?” Johnson: “Why, Sir, it is of very low life. Richardson used to say, that had he not known who Fielding was, he should have believed he was an ostler. Sir, there is more knowledge of the heart in one letter of Richardson’s, than in all ‘Tom Jones.’ I, indeed, never read ‘Joseph Andrews.'” Erskine: “Surely, Sir, Richardson is very tedious.” Johnson: “Why, Sir, if you were to read Richardson for the story, your impatience would be so much fretted that you would hang yourself. But you must read him for the sentiment, and consider the story as only giving occasion to the sentiment.”

Although I love Pamela and Clarissa, I can see why others don’t — if people don’t read for the story, in order not to feel like hanging themselves, they aren’t likely to read for the sentiment, since the sentiment is much more likely to annoy contemporary readers than please them. The class stuff here is interesting, since Richardson was fairly solidly middle class (although the term isn’t historically accurate) and Fielding was a member of the gentry, and yet it’s Richardson who sounds snooty here. Richardson is not so different from his character Pamela who (according to one interpretation) struggles mightily to raise her social standing. Fielding, with his social standing secure, is freer to write about low life and to be, or appear to be, a rascal. It’s interesting, also, that some in the 18C found Richardson tedious — it’s not as though everyone at the time fell in love with seemingly endless novels with hardly any action.

And one more bit of Johnsonian criticism, reported by Boswell:

I wondered to hear him say of “Gulliver’s Travels,” “When once you have thought of big men and little men, it is very easy to do all the rest.”


Filed under Books, Nonfiction

8 responses to “The Life

  1. I like the quote about criticism and writing as a craft–I had not thought of that before–that in a way an author is offering a sort of service and why shouldn’t we get our money’s worth, so to speak. I tend to elevate an author above a reader, but really there is another way of looking at things, isn’t there. Is there a lot of cultural and social information in The Life of Boswell? That aspect would be really interesing!


  2. They are quite snooty, aren’t they! I also like the idea of writing as a craft. It takes away some of the more desperate emotions that cluster around the act of creation, and makes it a gentler, humbler, more reasonable thing.


  3. Like the first quote about criticism. I agree with you and the others. Even if we can’t write a story ourselves, we can still judge the quality. I know a bad table when I see one just as I know a bad book when I read one. I heard the Johnson quote about Richardson before I began Clarissa and I didn’t quite understand what he meant. Now that I’m 600 pages in, I completely understand. And how right he is! And how right you are that the sentiment is annoying for modern readers.


  4. Yes, I always become quite bored with authors personally when they go on and on about how only other writers are qualified to judge their work. If that’s the case what did they bother to get it published and released to the public? By all means, make a little chapbook and pass it among friends.

    I’m intrigued by the 18C novels mentioned here. I meant to ask you what other novels from that time you’d recommend, since I’d like to explore that time a bit more.


  5. Danielle, the Life of Johnson is very much focused on Johnson alone, everything he said and did that Boswell can research or remember. It does have cultural and social information, but it’s all filtered through what happens to Johnson — in other words, it doesn’t focus on giving context like a modern bio might. But getting the social and cultural information indirectly is pretty interesting too (I mean, you learn a lot reading over all the Johnson quotations, and about his publication history, and his interactions with other writers).

    Litlove, I agree with you absolutely, and I think the history of ideas about the figure of The Writer is quite interesting.

    Stefanie, about Clarissa — yes, Johnson is right, and yet I did enjoy reading it (and this makes me wonder what it is you are finding in the book that keeps you going?) I got caught up in the overheated atmosphere of it, and I liked the thoroughness with which Clarissa wrote about her life — yes, it got tedious, but somehow it appealed to me. And I’m interested in the novel as a historical artifact too.

    Imani, I wrote a post on the 18C novel here that has quite a few recommendations. I’d add to that list Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling (which is an awful book in a lot of ways, but really interesting historically), Smollett’s Humphrey Clinker, Godwin’s Caleb Williams, and Wollstonecraft’s short novels.


  6. 🙂 Everytime I read a quote from Johnson, with his repeated and indignant ‘Sir!’s, I think of the episode of Blackadder where he looses the only copy of his Dictionary. (Have you see it?) A very haughty performance from Robbie Coltraine that seems to capture him perfectly. I would very much like to read the ‘Life’ but perhaps I should go with ‘Rasselas’ first?


  7. I’ve just been noticing the frequency of the “Sir!”s — no I haven’t seen the episode you’re talking about — I must, I see! And yes, I’d go with Rasselas first. The Life is quite a committment, I’m finding.


  8. Pingback: Why I Keep Going « So Many Books

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