Printing Technology, Letters, and Samuel Johnson Analysis

Alvin Kernan

Printing Technology, Letters, and Samuel Johnson

Readers who might think that Samuel Johnson, printing technology, and the eighteenth century are dull subjects are in for some surprises here. As Alvin Kernan impressively demonstrates, the eighteenth century was the period of transition from patronage-based to publishing-based support of letters, from widespread illiteracy to widespread literacy, from orality to print orientation as a way of communicating and knowing. In other words, the changes during the eighteenth century shaped the modern world for the next two hundred years, with innumerable ramifications, and the nexus of all these changes in Great Britain was the career of Samuel Johnson. Crossing disciplines and synthesizing a tremendous range of knowledge and research, moving easily between concrete and abstract levels of discourse in a complex but controlled style that is a delight to read, Kernan has here written an exemplary work of cultural analysis.

Avalon Foundation Professor of Humanities and Professor of English at Princeton University, Kernan has outlined his approach toward literature as a social institution in a stimulating National Endowment for the Humanities seminar entitled “Literature and Society.” Based on Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (1966), Kernan’s approach has its ultimate roots in the pioneering theory of French sociologist Émile Durkheim and thus shares certain assumptions with the work of various recent French thinkers such as Michel Foucault. For this book Kernan also draws on Marshall McLuhan’s The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (1962), Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (1979), Walter J. Ong’s Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (1982), and numerous other sources concerning print and its transforming effects. Kernan has also read widely in the commentary on Johnson, beginning with James Boswell’s famous Life of Samuel Johnson LL.D. (1791) and ranging over the work of such distinguished current scholars as Walter Jackson Bate, James L. Clifford, and Leopold Damrosch, Jr. Kernan’s achievement is to synthesize this diverse and sometimes difficult material into a compact and readable interpretation of culture centered squarely on the engrossing figure of Samuel Johnson, also known variously as Dr. Johnson, “Dictionary Johnson,” and “the Great Cham.”

At one time, Johnson was a rather unfashionable figure in literature, author of the poems London (1738) and The Vanity of Human Wishes (1749), the play Irene: A Tragedy (1749), and the novel The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia (1759) in a world of great poets, dramatists, and novelists. His main reputation—derived mostly from Boswell’s biography and Johnson’s literary criticism, notably Lives of the Poets (ten volumes, 1779-1781)—was as a great but overbearing conversationalist who “talked to win” in both saloon and salon, as a formal stylist associated with the staid rules of neoclassicism, and as an ungainly person who ate with such intensity that he sweated into his food. Nevertheless, Johnson always had his diehard adherents, especially in Great Britain, and with their help his reputation began to rise. First it was noticed that Johnson had certain pre-Romantic traits, such as periods of dark depression and self-doubt, and that he tended to express independent judgment in his criticism, standing more in a pragmatic than in a neoclassical tradition, especially in the fine preface to his edition of William Shakespeare’s plays (1765). Later, with the help of modern philosophy and psychoanalysis, Johnson’s self-doubt came to be interpreted as existential doubt, à la Søren Kierkegaard, so that he was seen less as a pre-Romantic or “transitional” figure and more as something closely resembling the Romantic suffering artist.

Kernan draws on all these previous interpretations in the course of presenting a newly emerging interpretation of Johnson as a media person—that is, the first hero of the print medium. In the International Encyclopedia of Communications (forthcoming from Oxford University Press), for example, Johnson merits a separate name entry along with such leading lights as McLuhan, Johannes Gutenberg, Thomas Edison, David Sarnoff, and John Von Neumann. As Kernan points out, Johnson was the...

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The Christian Science Monitor. March 4, 1987, p. 21.

London Review of Books. IX, May 7, 1987, p. 18.

The Times Literary Supplement. December 18-24, 1987, p. 1396.