Mind of the Moralist

In his day Samuel Johnson (1709–1784) was renowned as the most distinguished English writer of the time, and in our day the 18th century in English literature is customarily spoken of as the Age of Johnson. Yet when one considers the literary forms most esteemed today—novels, poems, plays—his achievement is notably underwhelming. He wrote only one novella, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia—basically a moralizing tract that takes a dim view of the human condition, with stick figures advancing the argument. One or, at most, two poems have lasted, “The Vanity of Human Wishes” and “London,” if lasting means being enlisted on a forced march through poetic history in English 101. And his one tragedy, Irene, was performed only because England’s most celebrated actor and theater manager, David Garrick, was a lifelong friend of Johnson’s. In its most solemn moments the play set the audience laughing. No one today would dream of staging it and not even Ph.D. candidates trouble to read it any more.

Johnson’s reputation as a writer rests instead on feats of heroic scholarly industry and morally unexceptionable instruction: the Dictionary of the English Language, which remained the standard authority well into the 19th century; the three series of brief essays, some 450 of them, on manners and mores that appeared in magazines weekly or twice weekly over the course of several years; the edition of Shakespeare designed to make reading the plays as exciting and intellectually profitable as Garrick made seeing them onstage; and the collection of 52 critical biographies known as The Lives of the Poets. Lexicographer extraordinaire, paragon of learning, purveyor of practical wisdom to a readership eager for improvement, Johnson was the all-purpose heavy-duty man of letters, and his artistry and force of mind enriched jobs of work that are not generally undertaken by men of his caliber. His singular abilities elevated subsidiary roles in the literary enterprise—editor, critic, journalist—to a height they had never known before and have not reached since. The erudite footnote does not commonly enjoy exalted status among literary genres, but editorial glosses on and emendations of Shakespeare fill two large volumes of The Works of Samuel Johnson from Yale University Press. The usual order of rank does not apply. If Johnson wrote it, it was serious literature.

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