Samuel Johnson goes abroad

Claude Rawson

  • A Voyage to Abyssinia by Samuel Johnson, edited by Joel Gold
    Yale, 350 pp, £39.50, July 1985, ISBN 0 300 03003 7
  • Rasselas, and Other Tales by Samuel Johnson, edited by Gwin Kolb
    Yale, 290 pp, £24.50, March 1991, ISBN 0 300 04451 8
  • A Dictionary of the English Language (1755) by Samuel Johnson
    Longman, 1160 pp, £195.00, September 1990, ISBN 0 582 07380 4
  • The Making of Johnson’s Dictionary, 1746-1773 by Allen Reddick
    Cambridge, 249 pp, £30.00, October 1990, ISBN 0 521 36160 5
  • Samuel Johnson’s Attitude to the Arts by Morris Brownell
    Oxford, 195 pp, £30.00, March 1989, ISBN 0 19 812956 4
  • Johnson’s Shakespeare by G.F. Parker
    Oxford, 204 pp, £25.00, April 1989, ISBN 0 19 812974 2

‘In all my dealings with the Moors, I have always discover’d in them an ill-natur’d cowardise, which makes them insupportably insolent, if you shew them the least respect, and easily reduced to reasonable terms, when you treat them with a high hand.’ The words read like something from Said’s Orientalism, the sentiments of a Balfour or Cromer, as parroted by a barrackroom sage or vainglorious subaltern, without the bland solvent of self-righteous statesmanship. In fact, they’re from Samuel Johnson’s first book, A Voyage to Abyssinia (1735), an excellent and little-noticed edition of which, by Joel Gold, appeared in 1985. They come at the conclusion of a distressing episode in which an ‘old Mahometan troublemaker, ‘the master of our camels’, is caught stealing some tent cords. When the travellers seek to retrieve them, he and the other drivers offer resistance and are subdued by ‘our soldiers’. ‘None receiv’d any hurt,’ except the original culprit: ‘He was knock’d down by one of our soldiers, who had cut his throat, but that the fathers prevented it, he then restor’d the cords, and was more tractable ever after.’

The Voyage is not, of course, Johnson’s work, but a translation of a French translation of a 17th-century manuscript by the Portuguese Jesuit Jeronimo Lobo. But the English is Johnson’s, and it has a curtness absent from his French source. It omits an account of the Moor’s ‘prior attack on a Portuguese soldier’, and subsequent efforts to appease him from both sides. Joel Gold thinks this heightens the ‘impression of Portuguese cruelty and disdain’, and expresses ‘an anti-Portuguese bias’ on Johnson’s part. I’m not so sure. Johnson tells us plainly that the drivers threatened the Portuguese with their daggers, and he had a good opinion of Lobo, whom he thought ‘contrary to the general vein of his countrymen’ not only in his narrative credibility but in his freedom from Portuguese or Jesuit partiality, and from the tendency to ‘aggravate the vices of the Abyssins’ (who are Christian and to be distinguished from ‘Moors’, a word which in the Voyage usually applies to Muslims, though Johnson’s Dictionary definition in 1755 was merely ‘A negro; a black-a-moor’). He also praises the French intermediary, Le Grand. Johnson was abridging as well as translating Lobo’s narrative, but I don’t think that entirely accounts for the omissions either, and in any case he exercised a freedom to amplify or to make other changes to his original. In the reflection on the general insolence of Moors, the phrase ‘ill-natur’ d cowardise’ translates mauvais naturel, which merely means ‘bad disposition’. This change, like the curtness, might even suggest animus against ‘Moors’, not Portuguese.

The Voyage is an early work. Johnson later, as Boswell reports, ‘seemed to think it beneath him’. It’s apparently the style and not the opinions that he would have wished to disavow, though he may also have wanted to forget the poverty-driven hack work of his early years. What we know of his views on racial or imperial matters is not consistent with such a show of racial animus. Even his unillusioned anti-Rousseauist notions about savages or the savage state were concerned with men’s radical depravity and misery in a non-civilised or pre-civilised state, not with any specific racial make-up: ‘Children are always cruel. Savages are always cruel.’ It followed that any group he thought of as primitive, whether Arab tribesmen or Otaheitians, belonged to the class of ‘savage’, to whom he denied ‘superior happiness ... bodily advantages ... better health; and as to care or mental uneasiness, they are not above it, but below it, like bears.’ But it followed equally that anyone, of any race, might shed civilised qualities (“Gross men prefer animal pleasure. So there are men who have preferred living among savages’) or acquire them. The South Sea islander Omai, having been exposed to the ‘best company’, was so ‘genteel’ and had ‘so little of the savage’ that when he and Lord Mulgrave ‘sat with their backs to the light’ Johnson ‘was afraid to speak to either, lest I should mistake one for the other’. Omai was a fashionable object of wonder, a kind of Pygmalion’s freak, but Johnson’s response to him was in exact and literal conformity with his principled views on these matters.

Such attitudes, we’ve been taught to recognise, weren’t proof against the old imperial Adam, who lurks in all occidentals, and is culturally and intellectually, as well as politically and commercially, predatory. Johnson’s occasional interest in visiting India may have included some idea of making his fortune, though he mainly expressed intellectual curiosity about distant places. He detested Clive, ‘a man who had acquired his fortune by such crimes, that his consciousness of them impelled him to cut his own throat’. When Johnson said, à propos of Warren Hastings, ‘that the best plan for the government of India is a despotick governour,’ he meant not that orientals should be treated ‘with a high hand’ but that despotism would reduce colonial plunder: a good despot would check it, a bad one would minimise it in others to get more for himself. He knew and admired Hastings, and was a friend of the great orientalist Sir William Jones, scholar of Persian and Sanskrit, and, as Mr Jones, a member of the Club, present at Boswell’s election. When Johnson first wrote to Hastings on 30 March 1774, recommending to him the future Sir Robert Chambers, one of his Majesty’s Judges in India, and enclosing a copy of Jones’s Persian Grammar (1771), he pressed Hastings to ‘examine nicely the Traditions and Histories of the East’, and use his ‘attention and patronage’ to add to knowledge about the ‘arts of manufacture’ in India, still ‘imperfectly known here either to artificers or philosophers’.

This can doubtless be variously interpreted as a creditable desire for knowledge, an openness to foreign experience, a predatory design on Eastern technologies, or the sort of appropriative curiosity about the Orient which is depicted in Said’s book as the scholarly or intellectual arm of the imperial enterprise: a prelude to the vast acquisitive labours of French and English orientalists of the 19th century, which established a pattern of domination through exhaustive knowledge, laboriously charted. Then again Johnson hopes that Hastings’s information will enlighten us ‘about things which an Indian Peasant knows by his senses’, which seems to show him to be sensitive, in a way Said praises Burton for being, to the lived inwardness of what it was ‘to be an Oriental or a Muslim’, knowing ‘certain things in a certain way’. But Johnson sounds as much concerned with practical native know-how as with cultural sharing, and Burton’s standard, in Said’s terms, is an imperfect one anyway: more heroic, more finely appropriative than his analogues, but still appropriative. Who shall scape whipping?

The nuances and uncertainties are important. That they cannot be ironed out is perhaps essential to the case. The usefulness of Orientalism is that it puts forward the co-ordinates by which we detect them, though the book has its own tendency to create approximate or self-validating closed systems. It is sometimes necessary to remember that it hasn’t been read by any of the people it’s about. Also, Johnson isn’t one of these in any specific sense, though he is named as broadly representative on two of its pages. When he made the 17th-century Portuguese Jesuit sound like a boastful subaltern from an imperial culture later than the Jesuit’s or Johnson’s own, he had no idea that he was doing this. In one sense, he was doing it all the more in the terms of the closed system. In other terms, the implications are so out of line with the evidence of his later thinking that we have to suppose either that his attitudes changed radically or that we, schooled in post imperial guilt, are misreading the implications. I don’t know any evidence to suggest that Johnson’s views on race changed in any particular direction after 1735, or that would corroborate as autobiographical the coarse ‘racism’ we might feel disposed to see in the passage from the Voyage – if we exclude (as I think we have to) Joel Gold’s view that Johnson was trying to show that his Portuguese author was more racist than he was, a scenario as much conditioned by late 20th-century sensitivities as is its more obvious alternative. Both presuppose a degree of awareness of nuances of racial insult which would be alien to Johnson’s cast of mind.

When Johnson told Boswell over forty years later that he didn’t want to be reminded of the Voyage, there is no suggestion of any disavowal of attitudes or tone. Boswell suggested that his ‘style’ was ‘much improved since you translated this’, and Johnson replied, ‘with a sort of triumphant smile, “Sir, I hope it is.”’ It seems likely that his hardening of Lobo’s comment about the Moors had in fact a stylistic rather than a substantive character, in the sense of being a simplification which brought an essential attitude into stronger relief than in the original model: much as, at the end of ‘London’ three years later, he went beyond his Juvenalian original in evoking the serenity of country retirement, though this ran against his more usual feelings about country life as ‘a kind of mental imprisonment’. Juvenal’s downbeat, almost grudging conception of rural retreat might be thought closer to Johnson’s own ideas on the subject, but Johnson altered the emphasis, for reasons which have exercised the commentators. Part of the explanation might be that the traditional rhetoric of the country-city opposition, and the broad formal tendency, as distinct from the particular texture, of his original both signalled in that direction. There are other examples in the Voyage, not dealing with racial characteristics, where Johnson intensifies a mood already present in milder form in his original. Whether the changes in any given case reflected substantive features of Johnson’s own outlook, the practice is in keeping with the poet Imlac’s stylistic credo in the tenth chapter of Johnson’s best-known ‘oriental’ work, Rasselas, which calls for a simplification of outline and of resonance: ‘general properties and large appearances’ rather than ‘the different shades in the verdure of the forest’.

Imlac was formulating for poetry a comprehensive ideal of grand generality, which Johnson on occasion applied in a specialised way. When he was adapting an original model, as in the ‘epitome’ (as he called it, rather than ‘translation’) of Lobo or the ‘imitation’ of Juvenal, Johnson sometimes exercised his freedom as an imitator to simplify or reinforce, rather than to complicate or vary, an orientation or prevailing tone. This tendency was probably more pronounced in earlier work, where the register of nuances within Johnson’s range might be expected to be narrower. If Imlac was giving voice not only to an abstract principle of aesthetics but to a deep Johnsonian predilection, as I believe (some read Imlac’s speech as radically undercut by Johnson), these early works may be seen as instinctive expressions of this. Several examples of Johnson’s treatment of Le Grand’s Abyssinian dissertations and of his French translation of Lobo’s text, as Gold indicates, show Johnson not only abridging but modifying or even adding to his original in order to emphasise or heighten an attitude already there (in praise of Grotius, for example, or scorn of ‘the ridiculous speculations of those swelling philosophers’ who wrote about the Nile). This may or may not be the kind of thing Johnson was thinking about when he said his style had ‘improved’, but it’s a likelier explanation of what actually happened in the Lobo passage than any personal access of hostility against either Lobo or ‘Moors’: likelier both in the light of his known personal attitudes, and because the issue of being or not being beastly to orientals would not have posed itself in the same way as in the time which produced Orientalism.

The Orient is a presence rather than an issue in Johnson. The Voyage to Abyssinia left few traces in his work, though it contains a historical personage called ‘Rassela Christos lieutenant general to Sultan Segued’ who evidently provided the name of the not quite eponymous hero of Johnson’s short novel, whose title in the first edition (1759) was The Prince of Abissinia, though it is better-known as Rasselas (Seged is the name of the ‘lord of Ethiopia’ in an earlier Johnsonian tale of the quest for happiness, a prototype for Rasselas, in Rambler Nos 204-205, 1752). Johnson’s play Irene (1749, but much of it drafted in 1736-7) and several stories from the Rambler and Idler have oriental settings. Johnson’s Orient is a generalised one, a vague India, Near East or Northern Africa. It includes many of today’s trouble spots, Ethiopia and even Basra and ‘Bagdat’, and glimpses of Persia, Palestine, Syria, but with the special exceptions of Lobo’s Voyage and Irene, only distant glimpses of war, very little adventure and, I think, no ‘atrocities’.

There were several reasons, one of which was that large-scale or extraordinary events have no place in the psychologically-conceived investigation into human happiness or the ‘choice of life’ with which most of Johnson’s oriental fictions are concerned. Wars are special cases, as Rasselas tells his sister, warning her against basing her view of existence on ‘examples of national calamities, and scenes of extensive misery, which are found in books rather than in the world, and which, as they are horrid, are ordained to be rare’. This is partly a matter of what belongs properly to a ‘familiar disquisition’, to its realism even more than to any decorum, though the two are in a sense inseparable. Since the issue of human happiness, in Johnson’s conception of it, has more to do with mental states than with behaviour or circumstance, the introduction of large-scale circumstantial factors stacks the cards in a way that is either irrelevant or falsifying. The splendid new edition by Gwin Kolb mislcadingly glosses ‘familiar’ from Johnson’s Dictionary as ‘unceremonious, free, as among persons long acquainted’, but Rasselas must mean a disquisition about ‘familiar’ (Dictionary, 6: ‘common; frequent’) matters, in which exceptional events have no place.

Rasselas is strikingly devoid of incident. Even the abduction by Arab brigands of the princess’s favourite Pekuah, which may seem typical of exotic adventure stories, is experienced less as a thrilling or suspenseful action, or even a parody of such action, than as an off-stage fait accompli. The main actors can do little more than talk about it, though the talk is partly about omitting nothing ‘for the recovery’, and the rescue is a remote affair, retrospectively narrated. The episode barely quickens the tempo of the moral fable, in which indeed it functions semi-gratuitously, more as interruption than as illustration, as though Johnson were doing his duty by some dimly perceived ‘oriental’ obligation.

Adventure was not on the whole what Johnson wanted to identify the Orient with, oriental settings being mainly useful to him as delocalised laboratories for his moral themes. His recognition that the genre carried expectations of exotic incident sometimes yielded a perfunctory concession, or a brief deflation. Kolb wrote long ago of the Pekuah episode as a ‘deflation’ (and deflation is a truer description than parody, which implies a fuller commitment to mimicry than Johnson was prepared to enter into). A process of flattening, even of de-exoticising, is visible in most of Johnson’s oriental exercises. In Rambler No 38 (1750), ‘The advantages of mediocrity [i.e. against excess]. An Eastern fable’, he tells of two drought-stricken Indian shepherds who are invited to ask for the amount of water each thinks he needs. One asks for a ‘little brook’ and prospers. The other asks for the Ganges, and his inordinate desires are rewarded with a flood: ‘his plantations were torn up, his flocks overwhelmed, he was swept away before it, and a crocodile devoured him.’

The crocodile may be a coded joke. Johnson’s Preface to the Voyage praised Lobo for offering ‘no romantick absurdities or incredible fictions ... he meets with no basilisks that destroy with their eyes, his crocodiles devour their prey without tears,’ and the Rambler’s ruthless pay-off upholds the old Jesuit’s standards of realism. But the ruthlessness, out of line with the homespun placidity of this moral fable, is also that of ruthless rhymes, shocking and slightly absurd. It is one of Johnson’s few concessions to exotic incident, simultaneously a deflation and a short-changing of expectation, a startling closure which itself curtails the violence of which it is made up. The throwaway curtness or jokey finality suggests a kind of exuberant boredom, summarily despatching both the exoticism and the violence of that ‘romantick’ orientalism from which both the Voyage and Rasselas signal their disengagement.

Such curtnesses – not what one expects from Johnson’s pondered periods – suggest an eruptive withdrawal from orientalising effects, even as he proffers them, similar to that last-minute holding back of satirical potential which some critics have perceived in his writings, so that he has been praised, quite correctly, as a satirist manqué. In the latter case, accesses of literal-minded scruple, or of compassionate understanding, modify what would otherwise develop into a satiric distortion of the facts or an excessive severity. In the Eastern tales, it is oriental fancy dress that risks offending veracious scruples, and the satirical impulse, instead of requiring correction, itself becomes the corrective agent. This is visible in the black comedy of the crocodile, and is perhaps more subtly present in the opening of Rasselas: ‘Ye who listen with credulity to the whispers of fancy, and pursue with eagerness the phantoms of hope; who expect that age will perform the promises of youth, and that the deficiencies of the present day will be supplied by the morrow; attend to the history of Rasselas prince of Abissinia.’

The show of hieratic solemnity suggests an ‘eastern’ flavour, and the closing brevity again draws back, hovering between deflation and a get-it-over-with despatch. There is a further stylistic oddity. While the elevated manner evokes inflated priestly incantation, the content is that of the ‘Vanity of Human Wishes’, harshly and imprisoningly analytical, a psychology of delusion and self-entrapment, not the usual stuff of such sonorous intonings.

There is at all times a tension between the gaudy promise suggested by exotic settings and the doggedly psychologised allegories and radical pessimism of Johnson’s periodical stories, or of the short fiction collected in Kolb’s volume: ‘The Vision of Theodore, the Hermit of Teneriffe’ and ‘The Fountains’ (the latter set in a Welsh fairyland on Plinlimmon, an intramural Orient of the British Isles, and geographically west of the imperial metropolis, as, come to think of it, is the more conventionally ‘oriental’ Teneriffe). The pessimism is rooted in, and integral to, the psychological perspective, because all quests for happiness are frustrated by a condition of mind, the fundamental discontent or restlessness which in Rasselas is called ‘that hunger of imagination which preys incessantly upon life, and must always be appeased by some employment’.

‘Appeased’, not cradicated human unhappiness is radical to our nature and, being in the mind, cannot be removed by circumstantial or behavioural improvements, or indeed (in an age even less familiar than ours with the idea of total psychiatric cure) at all. Johnson’s fiction, like his essays and conversation, is impregnated with the assumption that the only ways to reduce dejection are those which rely on mental self-management: exercise, work, hardships, which temporarily divert the mind from itself, or a controlled activation of hope, akin to day-dreaming, bound to be disappointed even if its targets are attained, but useful in providing provisional relief: some of these things are finely dealt with in John Wiltshire’s Samuel Johnson in the Medical World, recently reviewed in this paper. This is yet another way of being literal-minded, characteristically Johnsonian and quite remote from anything specifically ‘oriental’.

Johnson’s Orient is, perhaps predictably, short on local colour, either of the stereotyped or the realistically authenticating sort. Rasselas contains the occasional detail from Bowen’s Complete System of Geography or some similar source, and there are a few generic commonplaces (evocations of fabulous wealth, the ‘great exactness’ of Arab ‘hospitality’). They are largely unparticularised, as are most of the local settings. The Cairo of Rasselas is an abstract distillation of aspects of big city life, with few specifically oriental, or even English or European, characteristics. The shorter Eastern tales don’t differ much from those set in other places, since human nature functions in much the same way ‘in the Greenlander’s hut as in the palaces of eastern monarchs’, or from those set in non-places, like ‘the garden of hope’ (Rambler, Nos 186, 67). The politics, in so far as politics come into them at all, are English politics allegorised, rather than oriental politics through Western eyes: this is probably true even of Irene. In the fiction, the political interest is primarily concerned, as Donald Greene said in his book on Johnson’s politics, ‘with the problems of psychology and morality that underlie political attitudes rather than with political questions themselves’. When Nekayah says ‘all natural and almost all political evils, are incident alike to the bad and good,’ she means that famines and factions, storms and invasions, affect everybody. For Rasselas, it’s a reason for not going on about such things: not only because they are rare, but because ‘when they happen they must be endured’, and there’s nothing more to say. This answers to the stubborn parochialism of Johnson’s own perspectives, but also to his conviction that the human condition is psychologically-determined, so that external events have no more influence on happiness than do particularities of place and time. In more than one sense, the world of Rasselas is a country of the mind.

In one place in Rasselas, however, a central predicament underlying all orientalism is briefly discussed. Imlac tells Rasselas that while living for three years in Palestine he

   ‘conversed with great numbers of the northern and western nations ol Europe; the nations which are now in possession of all power and all knowledge, whose armies are irresistible, and whose fleets command the remotest parts of the globe. When I compared these men with the natives of our own kingdom, and those that surround us, they appeared almost another order of beings. In their countries it is difficult to wish for any thing that may not be obtained: a thousand arts, of which we never heard, are continually labouring for then convenience and pleasure; and whatever their own climate has denied them is supplied by their commerce.’

   ‘By what means,’ said the prince, ‘are the Europeans thus powerful?’ or why, since they can so easily visit Asia and Africa for trade or conquest, cannot the Asiaticks and Africans invade their coasts, plant colonies in their ports, and give laws to their natural princes? The same wind that carries them back would bring us thither.’

   ‘They are more powerful, Sir, than we,’ answered Imlac, ‘because they are wiser; knowledge will always predominate over ignorance, as man governs the other animals. But why their knowledge is more than ours, I know not what reason can be given, but the unsearchable will of the Supreme Being.’

When Johnson read this passage in June 1781, not having looked at the book ‘sinces it was first published’, he said: ‘This, Sir, no man can explain otherwise.’

The ‘ethnocentrism’ will be obvious, and if it hadn’t been there would doubtless have to be invented. But Imlac’s reference to the Supreme Being is not likely to be a projection of Johnsonian complacency, basking in the Almighty’s favour. For one thing, Johnson seldom complacent, least of all on such a point. Asked why Europe is granted its powers, Imlac’s reply, here also avowedly Johnson’s, literally means ‘God only knows,’ with some of the ironic puzzlement that idiomatically belongs to that usage. The assertion of European superiority may not be quite what it seems Imlac’s ‘because they are wiser’ expressly has to do with ‘knowledge’, even technical know-how, rather than with ‘wisdom’ (the first definition of wise in Johnson’s Dictionary, which begins ‘Sapient; judging rightly’, includes the phrase ‘having practical knowledge’ – sense 2 is ‘Skilful; dextrous’) and evidently expresses something other than a simple mystique of racial superiority.

Said’s book shows that the technical or technological superiority of the West is another orientalist topos, but on his terms everything is: ‘Every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was ... a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric’ Said is here talking about the 19th century, but the notion seems to extend to most periods, and its power as a conversation-stopper is a matter of experience. But the technological superiority or greater material wealth reported by Imlac was also a fact, or a sustainable reading of the evidence, and generally perceived as such in both East and West, whatever value one placed on it. Its use in support of ideas of racial superiority is discreditable, but it must sometimes be possible to express tacts without intending or effecting a racial slur. The alternative is euphemistic denial, equally racist and perhaps more insidiously so.

In a climate of sensitised racial awareness, it is especially easy to project ethnocentric resonances which may not belong to the case. Imlac’s remark that ‘knowledge will always prevail over ignorance, as man governs the other animals’ is likely to seem offensive, but its dominant force for Johnson was almost certainly anthropocentric rather than ethnocentric. There are places where Johnson identifies primitive men with the animal state in terms which suggest a circumstantial or environmental rather than a racial conception of the matter. Similar terms are applied to the back-to-nature primitivists. These included theorists (‘Don’t cant in defence of Savages ... A dog or a cat can swim’) as well as ‘men who have preferred living among savages’, like the woman in America ‘whom they were obliged to bind, in order to get her back from savage life ... Sir, she was a speaking cat.’ The comments have to do with modes of life, not racial difference, and they are without that unctuous flavour of social ostracism, the aura of hushed voices and averted eyes, which is found in later texts about whites ‘gone native’.

Imlac does not imply an equivalence between non-Europeans and animals. Such equivalences are in common use in racial slurs (John Barrell has recently explored some examples among 19th-century travellers to Egypt), but animal insults are also used in non-racial ways – for example, of members of one’s own ethnic group – and all insults, not just animal ones, are available against aliens. Imlac’s words are not a racist equation but an elaborate six-term analogy, in which it is the relations within each of the three pairs (‘they’/‘we’, knowledge/ignorance, man/animals), and not the individual terms, that resemble one another: if A is to B as C is to D and E is to F, it does not follow that B = F. Its also unlikely that Johnson would be clumsy enough to allow Imlac to equate himself and Rasselas with ‘animals’, or that he would have portrayed these thoughtful and sensitive men as he did if that was how he imagined them himself, however subtextually.

Their oriental character is, in yet another sense, an abstraction in fancy dress. Johnson treated them as de facto Europeans, so it is arguable that he might have projected through them anti-oriental feelings of his own. But all the evidence we have of his ethnocentrism suggests it was patriotic and parochial rather than racial, a gut feeling of a highly localised kind, strongly laced with diablerie, and Anglo rather than Eurocentric. It was most characteristically applied to the Scotch or the French, and expressed itself in bouts of Boswell-baiting, or quips like ‘As three to sixteen hundred, so is the proportion of an Englishman to a Frenchman’ (comparing the single-handed project of his Dictionary with the collective achievement of the French Academy). Whatever this is, it is not a considered position on racial questions. Johnson’s Anglocentrism was a crotchety point-scoring sport, whose very narrowness paradoxicallv preserved it from serious racism.

The new edition of Rasselas is the fullest to-date, long-awaited and worth waiting for, with lucid and informative introductions to the three works it brings together, and a valuable commentary, whose only recurrent irritant is to provide too many obvious glosses from the Dictionary and perhaps to cite from the fourth edition, 1773, when the first, 1755, is much closer in date.

Published four years before the novel, the Dictionary is almost as dejected. Its opening words are: ‘It is the fate of those who toil at the lower employments of life, to be rather driven by the fear of evil, than attracted by the prospect of good; to be exposed to censure, without hope of praise; to be disgraced by miscarriage, or punished for neglect, where success would have been without applause, and diligence without reward. Among these unhappy mortals is the writer of dictionaries ...’ This is no neutral repository of linguistic science. The accents of the Preface occasionally turn up, explosive and self-pitying, in the body of the work, as in the famous definition of lexicographer as ‘a harmless drudge’. Seldom has a work of reference been so freely and nakedly an expression of the compiler’s prejudices and indignations (the famous examples include excise, patron and pension); and seldom have anyone’s prejudices been so subject to unpredictable gesture or eruptive whim. Those who recall Boswell’s or Mrs Thrale’s accounts of Johnson as a violent Tory perpetually savaging ‘vile Whigs’ may be surprised to find the latter term defined merely as ‘the name of a faction’. Tory gets an honorific definition (‘one who adheres to the ancient constitution of the state’, etc), but undercut in advance by the crackling sarcasms of the etymological preamble: ‘A cant term, derived, I suppose, from an Irish word signifying a savage’. To this extent, although Johnson’s definitions and etymologies have been shown to be broadly traditional in this as in other cases, the Dictionary echoes the aphoristic surprises of his conversation. By the same token his conversation replicates the style of his definitions: the description of patriotism as ‘the last refuge of a scoundrel’ occurs not in the Dictionary but in table-talk reported by Boswell.

The names T. and T. Longman appear among the consortium of booksellers (publishers) who brought out the first edition, and today’s house of Longman has produced a facsimile, accompanied by two pamphlet-sized attachments; one a facsimile of Johnson’s ‘Plan of a Dictionary’ (1747), the other consisting of businesslike introductions by J.D. Fleeman on the Dictionary’s genesis and Brian O’Kill on its lexicographical achievement. It’s a useful set, but very expensive, and the quality of reproduction of both ‘Plan’ and Dictionary is (in my copies, anyway) erratic. For some reason not made clear, the facsimile of the Dictionary is a hybrid, reproduced from Longman’s own copy but with ‘selected pages’ photographed from a copy in the House of Commons Library.

The publication coincides with Allen Reddick’s impressive volume on the Dictionary in the Cambridge Studies in Publishing and Printing History. This traces the Dictionary’s history from Johnson’s Grub Street beginnings to the end of his life, when Johnson left some revisions in a copy of the fourth edition bequeathed to Sir Joshua Reynolds. The Dictionary is viewed as a living literary text, whose definitions and illustrative quotations not only express a strong individuality but exist in active tension and dialogue with one another. An interesting discussion of the fourth edition shows an increased use of quotations from Milton, and an increasing High Church emphasis in the quotations (an interesting ‘tension’ in itself). Detailed use is made of the so-called Sneyd-Gimbel copy, long inaccessible but now at Yale, with its many manuscript insertions, and of a problematic interleaved copy in the British Library. A slightly pretentious blurb speaks of determining ‘the ways one “reads” the Dictionary’. The coyly protected verb, redolent of critbiz’s tribal rites, evokes ‘readings’ rather than reading. It makes one want to salute the Irishman in the fable, who bought a dictionary to read. He found the story hard to follow, but at least every word was explained as you went along. His reading was ‘at least’ preferable to ‘readings’.

Morris Brownell’s volume offers a useful conspectus of Johnson’s opinions about music, painting, architecture and landscape, and sometimes widens the scope of its title to take in Johnson’s relations with artists and to give accounts of contemporary portraits and caricatures of him. Its main mission is to repudiate the tradition that he was insensitive to the arts, a tradition which originates in comments by Johnson himself and his friends. Brownell achieves some corrections of emphasis, but his mode of argument is captious and hectoring.

The first chapter opens with comments by Charles Burney and Sir John Hawkins, both of them historians of music and personally acquainted with Johnson, asserting Johnson’s ‘insensibility’ to music, and Brownell’s book is dedicated to the idea that he knows better than all witnesses of that kind. As to Johnson’s own expressions of indifference or distaste, Brownell believes they were a ‘Socratic challenge’. I don’t know whether Socrates would have noticed the resemblance, but Brownell is of course right that Johnson often said things to provoke or tease. Brownell’s command of nuance seems primitive, however, and hiscritical judgments suggest that he would do better to stick to ascertainable facts. His book is nicely produced, with attractive illustrations.

G.F. Parker’s Johnson’s Shakespeare is a fresh and vivid study of the Shakespeare criticism. Its first chapter is entitled ‘Taking Johnson seriously’, and the book is written with an intelligent fervour and a forthright sharpness which do just that. Parker cites from Johnson’s notes on the plays, and offers an arresting reminder of the independence of judgment, acute sensibility and sheer quality of mind which are to be found in that half-concealed and infrequently consulted source. Johnson’s comments on Othello, for example, are of a kind which, if they were more common, might have made books like Orientalism irrelevant. They represent a quantum leap from Rymer’s notorious account. Parker suggests that while they also seem ‘an absolute rebuttal’ of Rymer, that response seems to have been ‘achieved only under strain’ on a number of issues, including the unreasonableness of Othello’s jealousy. Some remarks quoted in Boswell’s Life, where Johnson says that we learn from Othello the ‘very useful moral, not to make an unequal match’ and ‘not to yield too readily to suspicion’, may even suggest a ghostly resemblance to Rymer’s opinion that the play ‘may be a caution to all Maidens of Quality how, without their Parents’ consent, they run away with Blackamoors’ and ‘a lesson to Husbands that before their Jealousie be Tragical the proofs may be Mathematical’. But the effect even here is to show up Rymer’s coarseness of mind, and Johnson’s point is to affirm, what Rymer generally denies, that ‘Othello has more moral than almost any play’. Parker doesn’t, I think, record this passage or its infamous Rymerian counterpart, and, like Johnson himself, is perhaps more respectful of Rymer than he deserves. But it’s part of the attraction of this book that it ‘takes seriously’ all the older critics with whom it engages.

In an exceptional crop of recent books of Johnsonian interest, two others stand out, in addition to John Wiltshire’s. The first is an attractive and well-documented biography by Bertram Davis of Thomas Percy, editor of the Reliques of Ancient English Poetry and a member of the Johnson circle[*]. The second[†] is a lively collection of essays by several hands, commemorating the bicentenary of the Life of Johnson, and covering various aspects of Boswell’s life and works.

[*] Thomas Percy: A Scholar-Cleric in the Age of Johnson. University of Pennsylvania Press. 361 pp., £31.95, 1989, 0 8122 8161 6.

[†] New Light on Boswell, edited by Greg Clingham. Cambridge, 235 pp., £30, 27 June, 0 521 38047 2.