Your weekly Johnson post

I think it’s time for another post on Boswell and Johnson. I’ve been marking interesting passages with post-it notes and after I blog on those passages taking them out, so when I see a lot of post-it notes accumulating in the book, that means it’s time to write about it again.

First of all, I can’t resist giving you Boswell’s description of Johnson’s extremely odd mannerisms:

…while talking or even musing as he sat in his chair, he commonly held his head to one side towards his right shoulder, and shook it in a tremulous manner, moving his body backwards and forwards, and rubbing his left knee in the same direction, with the palm of his hand. In the intervals of articulating he made various sounds with his mouth; sometimes as if ruminating, or what is called chewing the cud, sometimes giving a half whistle, sometimes making his tongue play backwards from the roof of his mouth, as if clucking like a hen, and sometimes protruding it against his upper gums in front, as if pronouncing quickly under his breath, too, too, too: all this accompanied sometimes with a thoughtful look, but more frequently with a smile. Generally when he had concluded a period, in the course of a dispute, by which time he was a good deal exhausted by violence and vociferation, he used to blow out his breath like a whale.

Johnson is someone I wish I could have seen. Much if not most of The Life is taken up with accounts of conversations; Johnson, Boswell, and friends sit around and talk about literature and politics and the latest gossip (and they do love to gossip!), and while reading Boswell’s accounts of it all is great, surely it’s nothing compared to actually being able to witness these bull sessions.

Boswell describes Johnson getting angry, violent, and vociferous, but then quickly calming down, realizing he’d gone too far, being willing to make peace with whomever he was angry at. Can you imagine, Dr. Johnson getting furious with you? I’d be terrified.

And, unfortunately, I’d have every reason to be terrified of Johnson if I’d had the chance to meet him because he hated Americans (and, also unfortunately, some of the things he says about women I’m not too keen on):

From this pleasing subject, he, I know not how or why, made a sudden transition to one upon which he was a violent aggressor; for he said, “I am willing to love all mankind, except an American:” and his inflammable corruption bursting into horrid fire, he “breathed out threatenings and slaughter;” calling them, “Rascals — Robbers — Pirates;” and exclaiming, he’d “burn and destroy them.” Miss Seward, looking to him with mild but steady astonishment, said, “Sir, this is an instance that we are always most violent against those whom he have injured.” — He was irritated still more by this delicate and keen reproach; and roared out another tremendous volley which one might fancy could be heard across the Atlantick.

I don’t remember just what caused this hatred, if it has any explanation at all. From this safe distance in time I can be amused at this moment of irrationality from so rational a man, but I’m still extremely grateful I wasn’t there to witness it. Boswell describes trying his best to calm Johnson down and divert him with some other, safer topic; in fact, he fairly regularly needs to do this. Johnson sometimes seems like a man who needed a little managing.

But the extent of their regard for each other comes through very clearly. Boswell is always praising Johnson to the skies and worrying that Johnson is angry with him, and Johnson clearly loves Boswell in return and tries to reassure him, although somewhat impatiently. This is Johnson speaking:

Nay, Sir, you are more likely to quarrel with me, than I with you. My regard for you is greater almost than I have words to express; but I do not chuse to be always repeating it; write it down in the first leaf of your pocketbook, and never doubt of it again.

And here is Boswell’s justification for recording many little details of Johnson’s life:

I cannot allow any fragment whatever that floats in my memory concerning the great subject of this work to be lost. Though a small particular may appear trifling to some, it will be relished by others; while every little spark adds something to the general blaze: and to please the true, candid, warm admirers of Johnson, and in any degree increase the splendour of his reputation, I bid defiance to the shafts of ridicule, or even of malignity. Showers of them have been discharged at my “Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides;” yet it still sails unhurt along the stream of time, and as an attendant upon Johnson, “Pursues the triumph, and partakes the gale.”

And in another letter Boswell says this:

I vow to thee an eternal attachment. It shall be my study to do what I can to render your life happy; and if you die before me, I shall endeavour to do honour to your memory; and, elevated by the remembrance of you, persist in noble piety.

What a friendship! I am enjoying reading all the details about Johnson’s life, but I’m enjoying even more reading this record of affection.


Filed under Books, Nonfiction

6 responses to “Your weekly Johnson post

  1. Oh what fun! I think I’d be a little afraid of Johnson being mad at me too!


  2. Was he married? I take it there are not many women mentioned in this book? Don’t you sometimes wish you could go back in time and just be a fly on the wall and watch? He sounds like quite a character!


  3. He wasn’t too fond of Scotland either, yet he and Boswell did quite well. 🙂 I’d love to have been in a coffee house when he held forth!


  4. Ted

    Boy that last paragraph is hysterical — that’s the stuff that keeps drawing me to this text. I love how delicate Boswell’s relationship to Johnson seems to be; from the fact that he is always accompanying him everywhere, and from the praise Johnson heaps upon him, you’d think he’d attain some sort of assurance — yet he feels so inferior in the presence of Johnson that he’s always teetering on the edge of insecurity. I love it.

    I’m guessing Johnson hated the Americans because of the Revolution and his being a Tory; that would fall in line, wouldn’t it?


  5. Fascinating stuff, Dorothy! I would have liked to watch Johnson – from a safe distance!


  6. Stefanie, he does sound terrifying! But probably it was worth your while to brave his anger if you got the chance to spend some time with him …

    Danielle, he was married, but his wife died fairly young, He mourned for her a long time — the rest of his life really. Boswell doesn’t say a whole lot about her. There are only a few women in the book, one of whom also wrote about Johnson (Hester Thrale) and Boswell doesn’t like her particularly. But they also have conversations about women generally — what they can and can’t do — that are pretty sexist. I think the attitudes were common for the time, though.

    Jenclair, yeah, the issue of Scotland comes up a lot — Boswell gets quite defensive about it, no surprise.

    Ted, that’s it — he’s always teetering on the edge of insecurity. And yeah, the fact that he was a Tory does help explain it, although I do still wonder at the extremity of his anger.

    Litlove — yes, a safe distance, indeed!


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