The Letters of Samuel Johnson

by Samuel Johnson
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2270

Thomas Mann defined an author as a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people. Despite his prodigious output, Samuel Johnson fits Mann’s description. On May 1, 1783, he remarked to James Boswell, “It has been said, there is pleasure in writing.…I allow you may have pleasure from writing, after it is over, if you have written well; but you don’t go willingly to it again.” He had expressed similar sentiments in Adventurer 138: “Composition is, for the most part, an effort of slow diligence and steady perseverance, to which the mind is dragged by necessity or resolution, and from which the attention is every moment starting to more delightful amusements.” When Boswell pressed him on this point, expressing surprise that Johnson did not enjoy writing, Johnson replied testily, “Sir, you may wonder.”

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Letters proved especially irksome for most of Johnson’s life. If he had died in 1772, the Hyde edition of his letters, projected to run to five volumes, would have been complete in one. The goad of poverty that drove his pen until he received his pension of £300 a year in 1763 provoked poems, essays, a dictionary, a play, a novel, and an edition of Shakespeare (though published in 1765, it was at its appearance long overdue), but no such stimulus, or indeed any other, prompted the converse of the pen. As Johnson wrote to John Taylor on July 31, 1756, “I know not how it happens, but I fancy that I write letters with more difficulty than some other people, who write nothing but letters,…and indeed I never did exchange letters regularly but with dear Miss Boothby.” The regularity of even that correspondence is suspect, since only eight of Johnson’s letters to her survive. Some seven years later, Johnson wrote to James Boswell, “I love to see my friends to hear from them to talk to them and to talk of them, but it is not without a considerable effort of resolution that I prevail upon myself to write.…Whether I shall easily arrive at an exact punctuality of correspondence I cannot tell.” In the first decade of their acquaintance, Johnson did not. Although he would eventually write more than a hundred letters to his future biographer, only nine are dated between 1763 and 1772.

Johnson’s epistolary silence resulted from a combination of factors, of which his oft-confessed laziness was but one. Money-making projects necessary to his very survival demanded much of his time; ill health and depression drained his energy. His was not a life filled with incident; in his dictionary he defined a lexicographer (that is, himself) as “a harmless drudge.” When Giuseppe Baretti accused Johnson “with parsimony of writing,” Johnson reminded his Italian friend that “he who continues the same course of life in the same place, will have little to tell.” Not least among the reasons for Johnson’s reluctance to write was his fear of failure and consequent pursuit of perfection. His Rambler 152 surveys the requirements of the successful letter, and he concludes that while apparent artlessness, simplicity, and ease are required, “the pebble must be polished with care, which hopes to be valued as a diamond, and words ought surely to be laboured when they are intended to stand for things.”

Johnson wanted to please his correspondents; his own early doubts about his ability to do so explain to some extent the existence of fewer than fifty letters between 1731, the date of the first extant, and 1752. His correspondents may not have saved all that he wrote during this period, since he was then a Grub Street hack, not the Great Cham of literature, but Redford believes “that the distribution of the recovered letters reflects in its general shape the number of letters Johnson actually wrote.” Johnson’s natural propensity to procrastination was also encouraged by his knowledge that personal letters in the eighteenth century often became public. Under the date of May 8, 1781, Boswell records in his Life of Samuel Johnson (1791), “We talked of Letter-writing.” Johnson commented, “It is now become so much the fashion to publish letters, that in order to avoid it, I put as little into mine as I can.” Boswell replied, “Do what you will, Sir, you cannot avoid it.”

Boswell was right. He had already angered his friend by publishing one of his letters in 1768, and by 1781 he probably knew that he intended to include hundreds in his biography. Despite his disclaimer, Johnson was not indifferent to the fate of his correspondence. He urged Hester Thrale to save his letters, and he discussed their publication with her. Arthur Murphy thus erred when he commented in his review of Hester Thrale’sLetters to and from Samuel Johnson (1788) that “We here see Dr. Johnson, as it were, behind the curtains, and not preparing to figure on the stage; retired from the eye of the world, and not knowing that what he was then doing would ever be brought to light.”

As the multiplicity of letters in the last decade of Johnson’s life demonstrates, he finally reconciled himself to the form. Boswell, who had more than once felt slighted by his friend’s epistolary taciturnity, recorded in his Tour of the Hebrides (1786) under the date August 25, 1773, “Dr. Johnson wrote a long letter to Mrs. Thrale. I wondered to see him write so much so easily.” On September 20, 1777, Johnson wrote to Hester Thrale that he regarded writing to her as a duty, but one that he diligently discharged. By the end of 1779, writing letters, at least to her, had become a pleasure: “I have nothing to tell you, yet I am eager to write because I am eager for your answer.” This friendship with, indeed love for, Hester Thrale would inspire nearly a third of all his surviving letters; his attachment to Boswell in the 1770’s and 1780’s yielded a hundred more. Even old friends heard more frequently from him. Of the 102 letters to John Taylor, only 7 belong to the period before 1761; before 1770 Bennet Langton received 7 letters from Johnson, but in the 1770’s he received 13, and another 11 between 1781 and Johnson’s death in 1784.

As a group, Johnson’s letters conform to the requirements that he laid down for good conversation: “There must, in the first place, be knowledge, there must be materials;—in the second place, there must be command of words;—in the third place, there must be imagination…;—and in the fourth place, there must be presence of mind, and a resolution that is not to be overcome by failures.” Many could stand by themselves as literary masterpieces. His response to Philip Dormer Stanhope, Fourth Earl of Chesterfield’s praise in The World of Johnson’s forthcoming dictionary reveals him at his most powerful and independent. Thomas Carlyle called the letter the death knell of patronage. “Is not a Patron, My Lord, one who looks with unconcern on a Man struggling for Life in the water and when he has reached ground encumbers him with help. The notice which you have been pleased to take of my Labours, had it been early, had been kind; but it has been delayed till I am indifferent and cannot enjoy it, till I am solitary and cannot impart it, till I am known and do not want it.” Chesterfield supposedly was so impressed with the dignity of the piece that he kept it in his front hall to show to visitors. Threatened by James Macpherson for challenging the authenticity of the Ossian poems (which were, as Johnson suspected, Macpherson’s forgeries), Johnson wrote, “I received your foolish and impudent note. Whatever insult is offered me I will do my best to repel, and what I cannot do for myself the law will do for me. I will not desist from detecting what I think a cheat, from any fear of the menaces of a Ruffian.” Even Hester Thrale felt the force of his indignation when he learned of her marriage to Gabriel Mario Piozzi; his letter of July 2, 1784, so offended her that she wrote back “to desire the conclusion of a Correspondence which I can bear to continue no longer.”

Yet as Oliver Goldsmith observed, “Johnson, to be sure, has a roughness in his manner; but no man alive has a more tender heart. He has nothing of the bear but his skin.” Quickly repenting of his harsh letter to his longtime friend, Johnson wrote to her again in a gentler vein, “I wish that God may grant you every blessing, that you may be happy in this world for its short continuance, and eternally happy in a better state. and whatever I can contribute to your happiness, I am very ready to repay for that kindness which soothed twenty years of a life radically wretched.”

This concern for making others easy pervades the letters. Johnson secured admission to the Charterhouse Hospital for the eighty-three-year-old Isaac De Groot, great-grandson of Hugo Grotius. He repeatedly sent barrels of oysters to his step-daughter, Lucy Porter. From Elizabeth Montagu he sought help for the bankrupt bookseller Tom Davies; for the impoverished artist Maritius Lowe he wrote to William Hunter to secure a medical consultation with William’s brother John. In 1779, when war threatened the pension of some women living next door, he solicited funds from the Thrales, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and the printer William Strahan. Hester Thrale sent half a guinea; Johnson gave them two in the Thrales’s name. He tried unsuccessfully to save the life of William Dodd, an Anglican divine who forged Lord Chesterfield’s signature to a note for £4,200. He urged his Oxford friends to help Charles Burney with his research into the history of music and secured a publisher for Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765). Redford has found a dozen letters from Johnson to Charlotte Lennox that highlight his efforts on her behalf. This list of benefits conferred might be greatly extended.

Equally characteristic of Johnson is the fund of common sense in the letters. Many, especially the early ones, resemble essays in The Rambler, but they are no less valuable for their impersonal tone. In response to Baretti’s question about marriage, Johnson soberly responded, “if all would happen that a lover fancies, I know not what other terrestrial happiness would deserve pursuit. But love and marriage are different states.” As illness or death afflicted his friends, he urged them not to succumb to sorrow, to occupy their minds with other matters and so avoid despair. He also reminded them, in words similar to those he sent to Lucy Porter after her aunt’s death, “All union with the inhabitants of earth must in time be broken; and all the hopes that terminate here, must on one part or other end in disappointment.” He advised Boswell and Langton not to magnify their distresses or to create imaginary ones: “Let us endeavour to see things as they are, and then enquire whether we ought to complain.” Langton thought enough of these observations, which Johnson sent to him on the death of Langton’s uncle, that he passed them on to the man’s widow.

The lessons of Johnson’s The Vanity of Human Wishes (1749) repeatedly surface in the letters. “Fate wings with every wish the afflictive dart,” Johnson declared in the poem. To Elizabeth Carter he expressed a similar sentiment seven years later: “To every Joy is appended a Sorrow.” He wrote similarly to Hill Boothby: “Of the fallaciousness of hope, and the uncertainty of Schemes every day gives some new proof.”

Despite its somber realism, The Vanity of Human Wishes concludes that people can make the happiness they do not find. As his college friend Oliver Edwards remarked, “I have tried too in my time to be a philosopher; but I don’t know how, cheerfulness was always breaking in.” The letters to Hester Thrale and her oldest daughter frequently contain humorous sallies, self-deprecation, and mock moralizing. In 1770, when the Thrales’s house was burglarized, Johnson assured Hester that his gang of thieves was not responsible. John Taylor’s fascination with his great bull provided repeated jokes in Johnson’s letters to her. Describing a dinner with Mrs. Cholmondely, he reports that the lady called him the best of critics, and he in turn told her that she was the best judge of critics. He also joked with his Oxford friends. For instance, to Thomas Warton he wrote on June 21, 1757, “You might write to me now and then, if you were good for any thing. But honores mutant mores. Professors forget their friends.”

For providing an accurate, well-annotated edition (to be completed in 1994), Redford deserves the thanks of all Johnsonians, as does Princeton University Press for its attractive printing and reasonable price. One wishes that Redford had followed Chapman’s practice of numbering the letters, if only to allow easier comparisons between the editions. A more serious omission is the absence of Hester Thrale’s letters to Johnson, which Chapman included. In fact, the inclusion of all the surviving letters to Johnson as well as from him would have enriched this edition. Yet considering all that Redford has accomplished in presenting Johnson in his own voice, any complaint must finally appear captious and should not detract from the praise he deserves for his substantial scholarly achievement.

Sources for Further Study

Choice. XXIX, July, 1992, p. 1677.

The Christian Science Monitor. April 1, 1992, p. 17.

The Economist. CCCXXIII, May 9, 1992, p. 112.

Library Journal. CXVI, November 1, 1991, p. 99.

London Review of Books. XIV, November 5, 1992, p. 10.

The New Republic. CCVII, November 2, 1992, p. 36.

The Observer. March 1, 1992, p. 62.

The Spectator. CCLXVIII, May 16, 1992, p. 30.

The Times Literary Supplement. May 15, 1992, p. 24.

Washington Times. February 16, 1992, p. B8.

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