What did Samuel Johnson think of the essay? His great Dictionary of 1755, a landmark in human achievement, has this to say regarding “essay” as a noun:
1. Attempt; endeavour.
Fruitless our hopes, though pious our essays;
Your’s to preserve a friend, and mine to praise. Smith.
2. A loose sally of the mind; an irregular indigested piece; not a regular and orderly composition.
My essays, of all my other works, have been most current. Bac.
Yet modestly he does his work survey,
And calls his finish’d poem an essay. Poem to Roscommon.
3. A trial; an experiment.
He wrote this but as an essay, or taste of my virtue. Shak.
Repetitions wear us into a liking of what possibly, in the first essay, displeased us. Locke.
4. First taste of any thing; first experiment.
Translating the first of Homer’s Iliads, I intended as an essay to the whole work. Dryden’s Fables, Preface.
Within a culture that values success (over endeavor), regularity and method (over loose sallies), accomplishment (over trials), and the final (over the initial), the essay would appear always to be an inferior genre, at least as it is depicted in these definitions. The second definition in particular distinguishes the essay from more finished kinds of writing, and the illustration indicates how a writer might depreciate another kind of work by calling it an essay.
At the same time, however, Johnson’s definitions and illustrations also suggest the elusive nature of what an essay is: almost any piece of writing would fit the parameters of the first and third definitions, as an “attempt” or “experiment.” The second definition, to be sure, does seem to be the most restrictive, and its first illustration alludes to a tradition of “irregular indigested” pieces by citing Bacon, who followed the generally acknowledged inventor of the essay, Montaigne. But Bacon’s comment points to the particular power of his essays, their currency; and the second illustration undermines any confident focusing of the term by employing a quotation in which the essay referred to is actually a poem, which may remind us of the disparate works Johnson would have known as “essays”: Dryden’s Essay of Dramatic Poesy (1668; a dialogue), Locke’s Essay
Concerning Human Understanding (1694; an extended philosophical speculation), Pope’s poetic Essay on Man (1733–34) or Essay on Criticism (1711).
Johnson’s own career also undermines any sense that the essay is a lowly or indeterminate genre. Prior to the Rambler, which ran from 1750 to 1752, Johnson was a promising but rather minor figure. Among his publications could be counted two long poems, London (1738) and The Vanity of Human Wishes (1749); some reviews and brief biographies; the “Plan” (1747) for the Dictionary; and a mediocre (at best) play, Irene (1749). After the Rambler’s 208 biweekly essays had appeared (almost entirely by Johnson), he was a major figure. In 1752 Charlotte Lennox was not alone in determining that “the Author of the Rambler” was “the greatest Genius in the present Age,” as she puts it in the penultimate chapter of The Female Quixote. Johnson was, for the rest of his life, “the Rambler” (sometimes even “Ramblin’ Sam”). The famous Nollekens bust of Johnson has written on its base, “RAMBLER.”
In the 1750s, in addition to his Dictionary and the philosophical tale of Rasselas (1759), Johnson published in two other essay series, the Idler (1758–60) and the Adventurer (1752–54). By 1764, the Biographia Dramatica, reflecting a widespread sentiment, could refer to Johnson as “no less the glory of the present age and nation, than he will be the admiration of all succeeding ones.” Johnson garnered this praise, repeated again and again by his contemporaries, before his great edition of Shakespeare’s plays (1765), Journey to the Western Islands (1775), or The Lives of the Poets (1779–81).
Johnson’s massive reputation, in other words, was substantially the result of his work as an essayist. And the Rambler, as Arthur Murphy, Johnson’s early biographer puts it, was his “great work” (Boulton, 1971).
Johnson’s celebrity when he died, late in 1784, was indeed phenomenal. He reportedly had remarked to Boswell a few years earlier, “I believe there is hardly a day in which there is not something about me in the newspapers,” and Helen McGuffie’s patient search of the London and Edinburgh newspapers (1749–84) revealed (in Samuel Johnson in the British Press, 1749–1784, 1976) that Johnson “was closer to the truth than he may have realized.” The press apparently tracked his every move and scrutinized his health; when there were no sightings or symptoms to report, they made things up, recycled anecdotes, quoted excerpts from his works, or focused on someone somehow related to Johnson (Richard Russell for instance, who was the subject of some 20 newspaper articles from 4 October to 13 November 1784: he had left money in his will to Johnson and then changed his mind [McGuffie]).
This sort of interest in Johnson as super-celebrity can only partly be explained by reference to his works. One must look as well to their reception; as Johnson put it: “It is advantageous to an author, that his book should be attacked as well as praised. Fame is a shuttlecock. If it be struck only at one end of the room, it will soon fall to the ground. To keep it up, it must be struck at both ends” (Journey to the Western Islands). Johnson’s works certainly were struck passionately at both ends, during his lifetime and afterwards.
As Vicesimus Knox put it in 1788: “Few men could stand so fiery a trial as he has done.
His gold has been put into the furnace, and really, considering the violence of the fire, and the frequent repetition of the process, the quantity of dross and alloy is inconsiderable” (Boulton).
The critical purification of Johnson’s essays focused primarily on the Rambler’s style and tone (its pious intentions could hardly be questioned). Johnson’s readers naturally compared this series, and every other essay series, to Addison’s and Steele’s Spectator (1711–12, 1714). Arthur Murphy’s assessment is fairly representative of late 18thcentury views: “Addison lends grace and ornament to truth; Johnson gives it force and energy. Addison makes virtue amiable; Johnson represents it as an awful duty. Addison insinuates himself with an air of modesty; Johnson commands like a dictator” (Boulton, 1971). While the Spectator was spectacularly popular, the Rambler “increased in fame as in age,” as Boswell put it. Some readers, however, never came to terms with Johnson’s distinctive style: Horace Walpole, for instance, thought Johnson’s manner “so encumbered, so void of ear & harmony, & consequently so harsh and unpliable that I know no modern Writer whose works could be read aloud with so little satisfaction” (Boulton).
Such a view of Johnson as a pedantic and pompous writer came to dominate the 19th century, so much so that Macaulay—writing in his famous 1831 review of Croker’s edition of Boswell’s Life of Johnson (1791)—could say that the “characteristic faults of his style are so familiar to all our readers, and have been so often burlesqued, that it is almost superfluous to point them out” (Boulton). But at the same time that Johnson’s writings were being dismissed, his conversation and his character (some Johnsonians would prefer to say “caricature”), particularly as presented by Boswell, were being affectionately embraced: “When he talked,” Macaulay asserted, “he clothed his wit and his sense in forcible and natural expressions.”
The modern appreciation of Johnson the writer has been developed by many people.
George Birkbeck Hill specifically set out in the 1880s to eradicate Macaulay’s Johnson, which had influenced generations of readers in schoolbook anthologies. Hill’s editions of Boswell, Johnson’s letters, The Lives of the Poets, and other works helped spark a return to the texts themselves. Walter Raleigh’s Six Essays on Johnson in 1910, and T.S.Eliot’s essay on Johnson as critic and poet in 1930, are particularly influential examples of early efforts to take Johnson seriously as a writer. In 1924 in Johnson the Essayist, O.F.Christie asserted what was becoming a commonplace—that Johnson’s essays, which contain his real opinions, are being neglected, while his conversations are being read.
Christie attempted to see Johnson’s essays “as a consistent and coherent whole,” and praised their imagery and “spiritual insight.” In 1919 D.N.Smith poked a hole in Boswell’s notion that Johnson’s essays were not revised, and Curtis Bradford in 1939 established that the fourth edition was Johnson’s final revision.
In the 1940s and 1950s interest in Johnson the essayist heightened. In 1941, for instance, W.K.Wimsatt examined the carefully crafted Prose Style of Samuel Johnson, looking closely at the use of parallelism, antithesis, diction, and other qualities; and in 1948, Wimsatt studied Johnson’s distinctive use of scientific imagery and diction in Philosophic Words. In 1944 Joseph Wood Krutch produced the first modern biography of Johnson, which is notable for the careful analysis it provides of Johnson’s own works, including his essays. Arthur Sherbo, Edward Bloom, A.T.Elder, and others deepened appreciation for Johnson’s accomplishment as an essayist, as well as his influence on the essay tradition. With a simple yet important bit of basic research, R.M.Wiles showed in 1968 that the circulation of the Rambler essays, in reprints and excerpts, was much greater than Johnson knew.
In the 1970s and 1980s, a series of studies examined Johnson’s rhetoric. In a particularly important essay, Leopold Damrosch in 1973 saw Johnson “dismantling” commonplaces in an effort “to make us stop parroting the precepts of moralists and start thinking for ourselves.” Damrosch thus suggested that the experience of Johnson’s essays is at least as important as the content, and subsequent scholarship tends to focus on defining the nature of that experience. James Boyd White, in When Words Lose Their Meaning (1984), offered a particularly revealing description of the typical Johnsonian essay’s unfolding: the beginnings of Johnson’s essays typically start “where the reader actually is, surrounded by truisms and clichés, in a condition of uncertainty or doubt, perhaps of essential thoughtlessness, from which he may be moved to a new position of clarity and truth”; yet White also noted that Johnson’s conclusions are “open-ended” and “structurally tentative,” conclusive only within the context of the particular essay.
Johnson is thus engaged in teaching his reader how to think.
The insights of Damrosch and White seem to apply primarily to those essays Johnson called “professedly serious,” and it is worth noting the wide variety of writing actually contained in the Rambler, Idler, and Adventurer: literary criticism and theory (the essays on Milton are especially interesting), Oriental tales, epistolary short fiction, allegories, and dream visions. Steven Lynn in Samuel Johnson After Deconstruction (1992.) describes the reader’s experience of the Rambler as a sequential series, noting (among other things) how Johnson reshapes the reader’s sense of the Spectator’s priority, how the movement of various essays anticipates and surpasses deconstruction, and how the careful patterning of the various essays brings the reader again and again to the brink of religious faith—thus carrying out the pious intention Johnson declared at the series’ outset.
For the modern reader, Johnson’s essays are likely to seem rigorous, intense, and strikingly eloquent. They generally demand the reader’s active attention, but even the most rigorous essays are not without a subtle humor. And the stories of Dick Minim (a lousy critic), Dick Linger (a sluggish soul), Tom Tempest and Jack Sneaker (political fanatics), and many other characters are both amusing and instructive. Johnson deals generally with “known truths,” moral insights that the reader is already quite familiar with, but has perhaps stopped acting upon, or applying, or questioning. The movement of his essays as well as the style serve to enliven the reader’s attention.
As Donald Greene (1989) has pointed out, the idea of “Johnson’s prose style,” as if he had only one, is mistaken. In his published essays, however, Johnson does tend toward quite poetic effects of balance, parallelism, alliteration, and imagery. The notion that Johnson’s prose is verbose or padded, a widespread idea in the 19th century, is easily negated by anyone who reads him without prejudice. Here for instance are the first two sentences of the Rambler:
The difficulty of the first address on any new occasion, is felt by every man in his transactions with the world, and confessed by the settled and regular forms of salutation which necessity has introduced into all languages. Judgment was wearied with the perplexity of being forced upon choice, where there was no motive to preference; and it was found convenient that some easy method of introduction should be established, which, if it wanted the allurement of novelty, might enjoy the security of prescription.
The first sentence efficiently sets up the problem—how does one open a channel of communication?—and looks at two aspects of it: on the one hand, the discomfort every individual experiences with first meetings, and on the other hand, the cultural consequences of this perception, namely the institution of various conventions to smooth over this difficulty. This sentence may appear, at first glance, wordy: it does have eight prepositional phrases. The reader who attempts to shorten it without loss or alteration of meaning will quickly discover, however, the efficiency of Johnson’s prose. The second sentence suggests a miniature allegory in which the figure of “Judgment” deliberates (like Rasselas and many other Johnsonian characters) over the choice of introduction, and finally decides arbitrarily. The sentence’s final construction reflects this balance, as “the allurement of novelty” is traded for “the security of prescription.”
This kind of rich texture is easy to parody but very difficult to imitate. Although Johnson’s essays have been very influential (even Macaulay’s prose strategies often derive from Johnson), his voice remains quite distinctive.
Born 18 September 1709 in Lichfield, Staffordshire. Studied at Lichfield Grammar School and Stourbridge School, to age 16; Pembroke College, Oxford, 1728–29.
Contributor to Gentleman’s Magazine, 1734–44. Married Elizabeth (Tettie) Porter, 1735 (died, 1752). Ran a school in Edial, Staffordshire, 1735–37; moved to London, 1737.
Reported on debates in Parliament, 1740–44; worked on his Dictionary, 1746–55; formed the Ivy Lane Club, 1749; writer and editor of the Rambler, 1750–52; major contributor, the Adventurer, 1753–54; arrested for debt, 1756: released after Samuel Richardson loaned him the money; contributor, the Literary Magazine, 1756–58, and the “Idler” papers for the Universal Chronicle, 1758–60. Granted crown pension, 1762. Cofounder of the Literary Club, 1764. Traveled with James Boswell to Scotland, 1773, and with Hester and Henry Thrale to Wales, 1774, and Paris, 1775. Formed the Essex Head Club, 1783.
Awards: honorary degrees from Oxford University and Trinity College, Dublin.
Died in London, 13 December 1784.
Essays and Related Prose
The Rambler, 208 nos., 20 March 1750–14 March 1752; in 6 vols., 1752; selections in Essays from the Rambler, Adventurer, and Idler, edited by Walter Jackson Bate, 1968
The Adventurer, with others, 140 nos., 7 November 1752–9 March 1754; in 2 vols., 1753–54; selections in Essays from the Rambler, Adventurer, and Idler, edited by Walter Jackson Bate, 1968
The Idler papers, in the Universal Chronicle, or Weekly Gazette, 15 April 1758–5 April 1760; in 2 vols., 1761; selections in Essays from the Rambler, Adventurer, and Idler, edited by Walter Jackson Bate, 1968
Prefaces, Biographical and Critical, to the Works of the English Poets, 10 vols., 1779– 81; as The Lives of the English Poets, 1781; revised edition, 1783; edited by George Birkbeck Hill, 3 vols., 1905; selection edited by J.P.Hardy, 1972
Essays from the Rambler, Adventurer, and Idler, edited by Walter Jackson Bate, 1968
Literary Criticism, edited by R.D.Stock, 1974
Selected Poetry and Prose, edited by Frank Brady and W.K. Wimsatt, 1977
Samuel Johnson on Literature, edited by Marlies K.Danziger, 1979
Samuel Johnson on Shakespeare, edited by H.R.Woudhuysen, 1989
Other writings: the two-volume Dictionary of the English Language (1755), poetry, the moral tale Rasselas (1759), the verse-tragedy Irene (1749), the travelogue Journey to the Western Islands (1775), letters (collected in The Letters, edited by Bruce Redford, 5 vols., 1992–94), biographies, and autobiography. Also edited an edition of Shakespeare’s plays (1765).
Collected works edition: Works (Yale Edition), edited by Allen T. Hazen and others, 13 vols., 1958–90 (in progress).
Clifford, James L., and Donald Greene, Samuel Johnson: A Survey and Bibliography of Critical Studies, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1970
Courtney, William Prideaux, and David Nichol Smith, A Bibliography of Samuel Johnson, with a supplement by R.W. Chapman and Allen T.Hazen, New Castle, Delaware: Oak Knoll Books and M.Goldberg, 1984 (original edition, 1915; supplement, 1938)
Greene, Donald, and John A.Vance, A Bibliography of Johnsonian Studies 1970–1985, Victoria, British Columbia: University of Victoria English Literary Studies, 1987
Bate, Walter Jackson, Samuel Johnson, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, and London: Chatto and Windus, 1977
Boulton, James T., editor, Johnson: The Critical Heritage, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, and New York: Barnes and Noble, 1971
Bullough, Geoffrey, “Johnson the Essayist,” New Rambler 16 (1968):16–33
Damrosch, Leopold, “Johnson’s Manner of Proceeding in the Rambler,” ELH 40 (1973):70–89
Fussell, Paul, Samuel Johnson and the Life of Writing, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971
Good, Graham, “Johnson: The Correction of Error,” in his The Observing Self: Rediscovering the Essay, London and New York: Routledge, 1988:55–71
Greene, Donald, Samuel Johnson, Boston: Twayne, revised edition, 1989
Koper, Peter, “Samuel Johnson’s Rhetorical Stance in The Rambler” Style 12. (1978):23– 34
Lynn, Steven, Samuel Johnson After Deconstruction: Rhetoric and “The Rambler”, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992
O’Flaherty, Patrick, “Towards an Understanding of Johnson’s Rambler” SEL 18 (1978):523–36
Rewa, Michael, “Aspects of Rhetoric in Johnson’s ‘Professedly Serious’ Rambler Essays,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 56 (1970): 75–84
Schwartz, Richard, “Johnson’s ‘Mr. Rambler’ and the Periodical Tradition,” Genre 7 (1974):196–204
Trowbridge, Hoyt, “The Language of Reasoned Rhetoric in The Rambler,” in Greene Centennial Essays: Essays Presented to Donald Greene, edited by Paul Korshin and Robert Allen, Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1984
White, James Boyd, When Words Lose Their Meaning: Constitutions and
Reconstructions of Language, Character, and Cummunity, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984
Wimsatt, W.K., The Prose Style of Samuel Johnson, Hamden, Connecticut: Archon, 1972 (original edition, 1941)
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