by Samuel Johnson; British periodical series, 1758–1760
Samuel Johnson’s Idler papers appeared originally as the leading articles in the newspaper the Universal Chronicle on consecutive Saturdays from 15 April 1758 to 5 April 1760. The series began in the second number of the newspaper, Johnson having provided anonymously a general essay in the first number to introduce the new serial (in which he was a shareholder). Though he wrote the periodical essays as Mr. Idler, this body of writing was easily recognized and widely enjoyed as his work, and it was the single feature of the newspaper in which it appeared that kept that enterprise alive. When Johnson ended the periodical essays with the 104th number, the newspaper itself stopped publication.
The Idler was Johnson’s third substantial periodical-essay project in the decade of the 1750s. He was a major contributor to Hawkesworth’s Adventurer in the middle of the decade, and he produced the highly successful Rambler essays from 1750 to 1752. It is thought that he undertook the Idler project as a diversion from the editorial work on Shakespeare’s plays which began to preoccupy him at the end of the decade, much as he had devised the Rambler project to provide himself some relief from his labor on the Dictionary earlier. Mr. Idler’s essays were not, however, simply a continuation, after some years, of Mr. Rambler’s. Less deeply analytical, less learned in reference than most of Johnson’s previous work in the essay form, the Idler papers are as a whole the most accessible pieces of Johnsonian discourse for “the common reader”—a part of his audience of which Johnson was characteristically solicitous.
For Mr. Idler, Johnson adopted a prose style far less complex and latinate than had been his practice in previous periodical writing. Consider, for instance, the opening sentence of the Rambler essays: “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.” Compare this with the sentence inaugurating the Idler: “Those who attempt periodical essays seem to be often stopped in the beginning, by the difficulty of finding a proper title.” Almost at random throughout the Idler, one finds a Johnson who is charmingly straightforward and matter-of-fact: “But such is the constitution of the world, that much of life must be spent in the same manner by the wise and the ignorant, the exalted and the low…We are all naked till we are dressed, and hungry till we are fed; and the general’s triumph, and sage’s disputation, end, like the humble labors of the smith or plowman, in a dinner or in sleep” (Idler no. 51).
Compared with the Rambler essays, those in the Idler series may seem to cover a less diverse range. This is in part a function of sheer numbers, since there are twice as many papers in the earlier series. Some readers may also feel that there are fewer brilliant moments among the Idlers—no critical papers, for instance, which can match Johnson’s earlier essays on the pastoral mode or on Miltonic versification. Still, the two-part character sketch of the absurd fashionable critic Dick Minim (nos. 60 and 61) is a brilliant critical sally, and in the character mode Minim is joined in the Idler by a host of other sharply etched persons: Jack Whirler (no. 19), Will Marvel (nos. 49 and 50), Ned Drugget (nos. 16 and 18), and Dick Shifter (no. 71), to name only four. These characters sketched by Mr. Idler or his correspondents are joined by some equally well-conceived fictitious letter writers on subjects no one else could write about so appropriately: Betty
Broom (nos. 26 and 29), Sukey Savecharges (no. 54), Robin Spritely (nos. 78 and 83), Sophia Heedfull (no. 98), Tom Toy (no. 39), and a number of other worthies. Mr. Idler certainly did not lack his brilliant moments.
Although a dozen Idlers were, according to the standard modern edition, written by Johnson’s acquaintances (including Sir Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Warton), Johnson himself wrote all the rest, allowing us to explore the breadth and perceptiveness of his interesting mind. We expect, perhaps, to find him writing about biography (no. 84) or the English language (no. 63). His commentary on practices in the serial press—on advertising (no. 40) or the corruption of news reportage (nos. 7 and 30)—is interesting in view of its original context. Although his handling of certain issues, such as charitable giving (no. 4) or imprisonment for debt (nos. 22 and 38), is rather serious, he was obviously amusing himself quite often: in the essay (no. 5), for instance, in which he suggests the creation of a female army to accompany male regiments which deplete the social world when wars must be fought. Mr. Idler moved easily from contemplating why weather is so often a topic of conversation among the English (no. 11), to discussing the custom of publishing notices of marriage (nos. 12 and 28), then on to essays on the critical reception of new actors and writers (no. 25), on punch and its effects (no. 34), on the wearing of bracelets as fashion statements by various types of people (no. 39).
Reading his essay on the loss of loved ones (no. 41) and realizing that his mother had just died brings us unusually close to this eminent man. In general, of course, we are quite content to pretend, with Dr. Johnson, that he is Mr. Idler and to let him talk in this style. Such talk is pleasant, and unlike the Boswellian version of his utterances (brilliant and dramatic as that version is), his own discourse in the Idler essays seems to come quite naturally from the streets and shops and public places he inhabited in busy 18th-century London.
The Idler, in the Universal Chronicle, or Weekly Gazette, 15 April 1758–5 April 1760; in 2 vols., 1761; in The Works of Samuel Johnson (Yale Edition) vol. 2: “The Idler” and “The Adventurer”, edited by Walter Jackson Bate, John M.Bullitt, and L.F.Powell, 1963; selections in Essays from the Rambler, Adventurer, and Idler, edited by Walter Jackson Bate, 1968
Bate, Walter Jackson, Samuel Johnson, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977;
London: Chatto and Windus, 1978
Kenney, W., “Addison, Johnson and the ‘Energetic Style’,” Studia Neophilologica 33 (1961):103–14
Krutch, Joseph Wood, Samuel Johnson, New York: Holt, 1944; London: Cassell, 1948
McCrea, Brian, “Style or Styles: The Problem of Johnson’s Prose,” Style 14 (Summer 1980):201–15
Wain, John, Samuel Johnson, London: Macmillan, 1974; New York: Viking, 1975 Wimsatt, W.K., The Prose Style of Samuel Johnson, New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, and London: Oxford University Press, 1941
Woodruff, J.F., “Johnson’s ‘Idler’ and the Anatomy of Idleness,” English Studies in Canada 6 (1980):22–38
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