Dr. Johnson and Mr. Savage

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Richard Holmes, author of distinguished biographies of Percy Bysshe Shelley and Samuel Coleridge and of a study of the biographer’s method (Footsteps), here continues his discussion of biography as a Romantic form. He believes that the rise of biography as both a popular and a serious genre in the eighteenth century heralded the advent of Romanticism, a literary movement that prized the truth to be plumbed in the self. The poet turned inward, abandoning the standards of the neoclassical age (which elevated reason as the measure of things), and sought truth through individual experience, priding himself on the use of his imagination and often challenging the norms and strictures of the status quo.

Holmes concedes that the august Samuel Johnson is a strange figure to put forward as a harbinger of Romanticism. Johnson, an opponent of the American Revolution, sympathetic to the Jacobite cause (aimed at restoring the Stuart family to the throne and disestablishing the new Hanoverian line), and a devoutly religious man, hardly seems the prototype of a Romantic writer. Yet Holmes shrewdly demolishes this historical effigy of Johnson, proving in the process the extraordinary value of biographical thinking.

Holmes shows that the conservative Dr. Johnson was largely the invention of his biographer, James Boswell. Thirty years younger than his subject, Boswell craved the guidance of an all-wise mentor. The erratic biographer, lacking in discipline, saw in Johnson a steadying father-figure and exaggerated those elements of Johnson’s character that suited his own needs. Holmes shows that Boswell consistently muted Johnson’s insecure feelings, disputing or ignoring sources that revealed Johnson’s immaturity and sexual needs.

Holmes portrays Johnson as an ungainly, hulking figure, subject to fits of depression and violent outbreaks of emotion. He failed several times as a schoolmaster, often frightening his pupils with his temper and with a grotesque physical appearance caused by the scrofula he had suffered as a child. Sexually frustrated, he pursued a number of well-born ladies—his princesses, as Holmes calls them. Johnson did not come into his own as a man or achieve success as a literary figure until his middle age, after struggling for several years in London. This is the Johnson who emerges from Holmes’s narrative—a passionate but uncertain man who only gradually learned to subdue his demons.

Holmes’s insistence on this more vulnerable and unpredictable Dr. Johnson helps him to explain Johnson’s fascination with the minor poet Richard Savage, who by all accounts acted the part of a scoundrel. Scholars have wondered for ages why Johnson’s biography treats Savage so sympathetically. Savage violated virtually every edict of the Augustan society Johnson revered. He spent much of his time drinking and whoring, shamelessly bilking friends of money and then libeling them, breaking numerous oaths to reform his profligate life, and accepting monies for books he never wrote. He crowned his dissolute career with a conviction for murdering a man in a tavern brawl. Holmes contends that Johnson’s affinity with Savage has been obscured by Boswell’s paternal image of him. In Savage, Holmes alleges, Johnson saw his other unreliable half. As Holmes admits, the title of his book alludes to the title of another key text in Romanticism, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886). Savage, in short, was Johnson’s dark, uncontrollable double.

Holmes is persuasive because he is able to demonstrate not only how aspects of Savage appealed to Johnson but also how Johnson projected parts of himself into his subject. All biographers do this, Holmes claims, even if they never let on that they are doing so. His position is, in fact, a Romantic conceit; that is, he is following William Wordsworth’s notion (presented in his Tintern Abbey ode) that the poet half-perceives and half-creates his world, that human perception is a transformative process in which the self remakes the world (nature) through its insights—the word “insight” suggesting how truth has become an inward experience.

Holmes carefully explores Johnson’s first years in London and shows how he came to know Savage at precisely the moment Johnson was seeking to establish his literary voice. In their long walks through London streets, Savage indoctrinated Johnson into the lore of...

(The entire section is 1801 words.)