Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1413

Joseph Addison and Richard Steele created with their Tatler and Spectator papers a vogue for the periodical essay that lasted almost to the end of the eighteenth century. One of their greatest successors in this genre was Samuel Johnson, who wrote three series of articles for weekly newspapers, naming them...

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Joseph Addison and Richard Steele created with their Tatler and Spectator papers a vogue for the periodical essay that lasted almost to the end of the eighteenth century. One of their greatest successors in this genre was Samuel Johnson, who wrote three series of articles for weekly newspapers, naming them for the personae he adopted in each. The RAMBLER essays were published between 1750 and 1752; the ADVENTURER, in 1753 and 1754; and the IDLER, in the Universal Chronicle, in 1758 and 1759.

Throughout his life Johnson lamented his tendency to while away his hours in inactivity, and he must have taken wry pleasure in beginning the third series by assuming the role of one who deliberately devoted his life to useless pastimes. In keeping with his role as the Idler, Johnson tried to keep the tone of these last essays lighter than that of his earlier works. However, he inevitably included some of his characteristic reflections on the burdens of life, commenting on the inevitable disappointments that follow most hopes, on the tendency of friendships to dissolve through suspicion, separation, envy, or competition, and on death and his hopes for immortality.

These serious reflections comprise only a small portion of the IDLER; more often Johnson comments in an amusing vein on the follies of his age. Even his language is more informal than usual, for he has substituted a flowing colloquial style for the carefully balanced phrases and the Latinate vocabulary of much of his work.

Many of the IDLER pieces purport to be letters from various readers, and through them Johnson gently satirizes social foibles of the mid-eighteenth century. A merchant, Zachary Treacle, writes to complain that his wife distracts him all day long in his shop, strolling about and asking “a thousand frivolous questions” when she might assist him, leaving the housework to a slatternly maid and spoiling their children. He considers the greatest indignity imposed on him to be their regular Sunday afternoon promenade when he is often forced to carry his child.

Betty Broom, a lady’s maid, sends the Idler two letters describing her misfortunes as one who has more education than the world thinks her station in life entitles her. Another mistreated husband, Peter Plenty, complains of a wife who cannot resist sales, with the result that his house is full of unused and useless articles: “the dining room is so crowded with tables, that dinner scarcely can be served; the parlour is decorated with so many piles of china, that I dare not step within the door; at every turn of the stairs I have a clock, and half the windows of the upper floors are darkened, that shelves may be set before them.”

Many of the essays are enlivened by briefer portrait-caricatures of familiar types. Tom Tempest and Jack Sneaker are the fanatical Jacobite and Whig, each convinced that the party of the other is the embodiment of all evil. Tempest whispers to his friends that a new monarch will soon replace the Hanoverians whom he despises, while Sneaker devotes his hours to worrying about new Papist conspiracies. Jack Whirler, characterized in another essay, is the man who is perpetually busy, so completely occupied in rushing from one task or engagement to the next that he never has time to accomplish anything. The traveler who finds every step a dangerous adventure is pictured in Will Marvel; he regales his acquaintances with vivid accounts of the perils he barely escaped on journeys that were, in fact, quite uneventful.

One of the most interesting of the portraits, one of Johnson himself, was contributed by his friend Bennet Langton, who submitted to the Idler the journal of a scholar, including the projects he planned to complete in three days and the way his hours actually passed. Distracted by visitors, outings, and new ideas, he made little progress on his proposed works, though sudden inspiration contributed to the creation of other pieces. This sketch fits well with what is known of Johnson, who always had a number of enterprises in hand and completed some of his best essays as diversions from the scholarly labors of his dictionary.

Each of Johnson’s volumes of essays included literary criticism. In the IDLER he introduces Dick Minim, a young man who, on acquiring an unexpected fortune, set himself up as an arbiter of literary tastes, gathering the bulk of his knowledge in coffee houses and at the theater and picking up a few critical cliches from books he studied when the playhouses were closed. His literary opinions were always those generally accepted. Faced with a new work he inevitably gave an equivocal judgment: “Till he knows the success of a composition, he intrenches himself in general terms; there are some new thoughts and beautiful passages, but there is likewise much which he would have advised the author to expunge.” Minim was in his element when he had a pupil to instruct in platitudes, and he had a wide following of those who considered him a paragon of learning.

In several of the later IDLER essays Johnson comments on various literary matters, among them biography, language, and the problems of translation. A renowned biographer in his later years, he considered the genre one of the most interesting literary forms, but he points out the difficulty in achieving objectivity and suggests that only in autobiography can a man be seen without the colorings of praise or blame.

In another piece Johnson defends the “use of hard words,” noting that especially in specialized subjects precision can only be achieved through “difficult” language. If a man is describing a building he can convey a far clearer picture by using architectural terms than by employing the vocabulary of the layman. On the other hand, Johnson discussed the problems of writing “easy poetry,” verse which is clear, simple and unadorned, noting that a colloquial or affected style is often mistaken for the pure one he advocates.

A large number of the IDLER essays do not fall into any of the categories outlined above. Johnson seems to have written, usually extemporaneously, on any subject that happened to catch his fancy. Several essays are Oriental tales with moral themes. In others he makes an impassioned plea for the relief of those in the debtors’ prison and argues convincingly that the creditors are partially guilty for allowing men to fall into their clutches. He praises the charitable impulses of his time in another paper and commends in particular the work of the charity hospitals. Interspersed among these relatively serious observations are a witty account of the ladies left languishing when the gentlemen go off to war and a mock tribute to the enterprising woman who rode a horse a thousand miles in less than a thousand hours.

Johnson has few compliments for the press of his day. Their treatment of war news is, he says, dull, and sets up a model story in which the events of a battle are carefully spaced out to enlist the readers’ interest for a whole week; it is a mistake to put all the available information in the first article, then reiterate it for days afterwards.

In one of the most amusing essays Johnson ridicules the advertising in the papers, scoffing at the large claims made for bed coverings, face creams, and patent medicines: “The vender of the ’Beautifying Fluid’ sells a lotion that repels pimples, washes away freckles, smoothes the skin, and plumps the flesh; and yet, with a generous abhorrence of ostentation, confesses, that it will not ’restore the bloom of fifteen to a lady of fifty.’”

The IDLER reveals many facets of Johnson’s talents; he succeeds equally well as a portraitist, a satirist, and a moralist. It is in the last, most familiar and most satisfying guise that Johnson concludes his series. He meditates on the sadness of ending any activity and suggests that all conclusions are little deaths: “An even and unvaried tenour of life always hides from our apprehension the approach of its end. . . . The uncertainty of our duration is impressed commonly by dissimilitude of condition; it is only by finding life changeable that we are reminded of its shortness.” Though the IDLER has been meant as entertainment, Johnson expresses the hope that his readers have come, through reading it, to realize that there approaches “the day in which every work of the hand, and imagination of the heart shall be brought to judgment, and an everlasting futurity shall be determined by the past.”

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