Entering Mexico at the start of The Lawless Roads, Graham Greene saw among the peasant women of Monterrey the signs of a real religious life about him – ‘the continuous traffic of piety’. One of the most striking things about Samuel Johnson is the depth of his urge towards piety: not spirituality at every moment, but what we might today call ‘mere’ piety. His private diaries are written in the margin of the Christian year: feasts and fast-days provide a grid for his moral thought, his meditations shade into his journal, and anniversaries chime with acts of remembrance and contrition. He was, of course, a good Protestant, though perhaps one deaf to the blandishments of the Catholic faith only on account of an ‘obstinate rationality’, as he memorably told Boswell. But a loyal Church of England man became habituated, not just to Anglican rite and usage, but also to the calendar set out at the head of the Prayer Book. He absorbed as second nature the lessons proper for holidays, the proper psalms on certain days, the tables of vigils and days of abstinence.
In the past twenty years there has been something of a religious revival in Johnsonian scholarship: one might think that Charles Pierce has arrived on the scene a little belatedly, but there is always room for a good book. The sermons have been properly edited for the first time, and a useful monograph on this subject written by James Gray. A pioneering study by Maurice Quinlan, Samuel Johnson: A Layman’s Religion (1964), has been valuably supplemented by Chester Chapin in The Religious Thought of Samuel Johnson (1968). The prayers and private diaries have been used more extensively by recent general commentators on Johnson. Moreover, spiritual life is given detailed attention by Walter Jackson Bate in his impressively full reading of Johnson, published in 1978. Do we need another book, so closely allied in coverage and running ideas? Pierce has a chapter on fear as a central Johnsonian concept, so did Quinlan. He writes – interestingly – on his subject’s sense of charity: so, more fully, did Quinlan. He speculates on the effects of the Lichfield family background: so did Chapin. He has a section on ‘the meaning of the journey’, where Quinlan has one on ‘the end of the journey’.
Pierce’s version of the subject is recognisably different, however, and this has a good deal to do with Bate. It is not exactly that the present Johnson is a more troubled believer, although he is that as well. Rather Pierce has relocated the will to believe in different lobes of Johnson’s brain. One of his central insistences takes the form: ‘Johnson’s reaction to his fear of insanity was to develop a passionate interest in how to govern the mind.’ Or again: ‘Contrary to popular belief, Johnson was a psychologist first and a moralist second.’ Johnson’s faith ‘was from start to finish forged on the anvil of existential anxiety’ (a phrase repeated 75 pages later). This is a discreetly secularised version of spiritual crisis: the tendency is, as Gray said of earlier accounts, ‘to minimise the doctrinal implications’. So we have appeals to the testimony (Quinlan again got in first) of William James, as well as someone referred to in a note here as Ortega Y. Gasset. Anxiety, let it be stressed, is not imputed in the way of paranoia or extreme mental lesion: just the normal baggage of suffering humanity, in an acute form. When Bertrand Bronson invented that excellent phrase ‘Johnson Agonistes’, for the title of an essay he published in 1944, he meant the fiercely contentious personality, ‘grimly but somehow exultantly fighting the good fight’. Unfortunately, whilst the word ‘protagonist’ has been nose-diving from technical application into woolly jargon, the term ‘agonistes’ has suffered its own little reversal. Agon itself has been through a few agonies at the hands of criticism, and most people now seem to believe that Milton’s title has something to do with Samson’s experiencing a mid-life crisis.
It was Bate who most persuasively gave to Johnson’s scruples, guilts, immortal longings and general unease of spirit a local habitation and a name which could be looked up in a 20th-century address-book. There is thus nothing wrong, or surprising, in the intellectual debt which Pierce records, most explicitly in some heart-felt acknowledgments. However, when the author of a ‘recent majestic biography’ turns out to be the dedicatee: and when this same dedicatee is quoted in the act of lauding Pierce’s ‘superb work’, not just on the inside flap (long consecrated to blurbs) but also on the front cover of the dust-jacket, previously reserved for the shrill hyping of para-literature – well, something has gone embarrassingly adrift. The fact immediately prompts some loss of confidence whenever Pierce shifts the onus of proof onto Bate. Speaking of the padlock which Johnson entrusted to Mrs Thrale for mysterious reasons, Pierce blithely announces: ‘It is now generally accepted that this purchase was motivated not by a masochistic desire to be enchained and beaten by Mrs Thrale but by a genuine distrust of himself and the harm that he might cause others.’ Ah! cela n’empêche pas! ‘The more sensational interpretation, as W.J. Bate has recently shown, is not borne out by the facts.’ This happy unanimity may indeed have been achieved within Harvard Graduate School, but over the rest of the globe no one is quite sure. Bate does have two searching pages on the padlock: but the ‘facts’ are by no means self-evident in their nature or in their bearing. Bate says that only Mrs Thrale’s ‘half-playful’ remark about sparing the rod supplies sexual innuendo: Johnson’s own letter, in French, he sees as positively innocent in its ‘infantilism’. There are all sorts of difficulties with this – why did Johnson, more or less uniquely, employ French? (Bate says it was ‘to give himself distance’, whatever that might mean.) And what about expressions like régime, autoritè [sic] and esclavage?