British periodical, 1750–1752,
Samuel Johnson stands at the crossroads between the Renaissance and the Modern period, and so played a crucial part in the development of the essay. There can be no doubt that Johnson found the essay an especially congenial literary form. As its origin in the French word essai suggests, the essay is an informal “attempt” to say something worthwhile. In an essay one was not promising much, only that one was trying; this more relaxed generic tone suited Johnson well. Above all, the essay as a literary form offered him freedom: it had no set agenda, no rules about topic, no prescribed length, and no required content.
Looking back, Johnson considered the achievements of Montaigne in the 16th century, of Francis Bacon in the 17th, and of Addison and Steele in the early 18th. When, however, his chance came to follow in the footsteps of his predecessors in the middle of the 18th century he chose instead to develop the essay in a somewhat new direction. The result was what James Boswell would later call “bark and steel for the mind,” and what Walter Jackson Bate (1955) would describe as “the closest anticipation of Freud to be found in psychology or moral writings before the twentieth century.”
Johnson’s chance to do something significant with the essay form came after he had been at work for two or three years on his Dictionary, which would appear in 1755.
Financially strapped, he was unable to keep up with his many expenses. At this fateful juncture he was approached by a trio of London booksellers. Edward Cave, John Payne, and Joseph Bouquet offered him the chance to become the author of a new set of periodical essays which they were hoping could match or surpass the earlier successes of the Tatler (1709–11) and Spectator (1711–11, 1714). Johnson was to be paid two guineas per essay, and there were to be two essays each week. This would provide him with four extra guineas each week, or with slightly over 200 guineas in extra annual income—a not insignificant sum of money for a writer who only a year earlier had accepted the sum total of 15 guineas for the rights to his great poem The Vanity of Human Wishes. The offer from the booksellers was irresistible.
Johnson thus found himself in early March 1750 committed to producing two essays each week—one to be published on Tuesday, the other on Saturday—indefinitely. They were to address important issues of the day, though Johnson was by no means sure just what those would be. Consequently, he designated himself “the Rambler,” undoubtedly to allow himself as much flexibility as possible when it came to choosing his subjects.
However, as Steven Lynn (1992) has suggested, his title may also have been drawing attention to a religious meaning in his work. It is clear enough that Johnson conceived of himself as a pilgrim soul on a journey toward God. But it is equally clear that he did not have the same sense of clear direction which had guided those who thought of themselves as pilgrims in earlier times. It was his lot here on earth to be but a rambler.
Johnson eventually brought his project to a conclusion in Rambler no. 208, published on 14 March 1752, just before the death of his beloved wife Tettie on 17 March 1752.
During the two years that he devoted to the Rambler there were only four occasions when he allowed someone else to compose one of the essays, though others had been responsible for a few small parts of other essays.
Apparently the Rambler was not a great financial success initially. The sale of individual folio numbers, we are told, never went much beyond 500. However, even when they were first being published in pamphlet form some of the individual essays did enjoy a much wider circulation than the numerical count would indicate, for they were reprinted in country newspapers and monthly magazines. Individual numbers of the
Rambler sold for two pence each, so simple arithmetic would tell us that Johnson’s financial backers at first lost money on this venture. However, it is also true that, in one of the odder turns of literary history, the reputation of the Rambler began to grow almost immediately among the British reading public. Not long after Johnson ceased publishing there was enough demand for a collected edition of the Rambler essays, printed in a duodecimo edition. Before Johnson’s death in 1784, there were to be ten authorized editions of the collected Ramblers, and even more by the end of the 18th century.
Though Johnson’s reputation as the author of the Rambler papers would soon be overshadowed by his great achievement with the Dictionary, most members of the brilliant social and intellectual set surrounding him in his later years first came to know and admire him as “the Rambler.” Young James Boswell is but one instance of someone who was not looking for “Dictionary” Johnson when he came to London in 1762: he was instead seeking out the author of the Rambler papers.
It is not easy to assess Johnson’s overall achievement in the Rambler essays. The 204 essays mostly or entirely by him cover a wide range of topics and ideas. To a great extent, what any individual reader will value in these essays will almost certainly depend upon what he or she is looking for. Johnson is perhaps most admired as a teacher of wisdom, and it is not hard to find essays that exemplify the kind of Johnsonian wisdom that has long been valued. Rambler no. 32 on the value of patience under extreme duress
is mentioned admiringly by most who have read carefully through the essays. Boswell mentions no. 54 on the death of a friend and no.110 on the value of penance as two that had a profound effect on him. No. 25 urging us to overcome feelings of timidity in the pursuit of excellence is yet another essay that continues to be widely admired.
Essays of other types are also still appreciated. Johnson does make a few attempts at humor. The most successful of these is probably no. 117, which contains a tongue-incheek argument in praise of a garret’s beneficial effects on writing. Other essays tell stories, a few extending to more than one number: the story of Misella, for example (nos. 170 and 171), or that of Seged (nos. 204 and 205). Misella’s tale illustrates Johnson’s remarkable sensitivity to the plight of women, particularly to the horrors of prostitution.
The story of Seged is commonly read as an early version of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia, one of Johnson’s most celebrated literary works, which he published in 1759.
On the whole, though, he is not especially successful as a storyteller in the Rambler essays.
Much easier to admire are the essays devoted to what we now call literary criticism.
Praise for Rambler no. 60, which sketches out Johnson’s theory of biography, has been almost universal. It was a major inspiration for Boswell, who quotes from it extensively at the beginning of his own much-heralded biographical work, The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791). There can be little doubt that Boswell found its carefully chiseled prescriptions and shrewd observations on biography as a literary form sufficient justification for doing things with biography that had never been done before. Rambler no. 4 contains an early argument on behalf of moral fiction, and is frequently cited as one of the first serious efforts to come to terms with the new literary form we now call the novel. Rambler no. 92. is an especially valuable contribution to our theoretical understanding of poetry. In it Johnson takes up the question of the relationship between sound and sense. After examining numerous illuminating examples he concludes that the intimacy of the relationship between the two has been wildly exaggerated. Whatever the essence of great poetry may be, it must lie in something other than sound. Other critical essays beyond these—on Milton, on pastoral poetry, on the “rules” for writing—are also of considerable value.
The Rambler continues to be of interest for a variety of reasons. Its essays reveal to us how one of the best writers in English employed the form at an important moment in its development. Some consider ideas of storytelling, while others make still valid points about issues in literary theory and criticism. Perhaps, though, most significantly, a surprising number of the Rambler essays still offer a wisdom that most of us can make use of in our daily lives.
JOHN J.BURKE, JR.
The Rambler, 208 nos., 20 March 1750–14 March 1752; in 6 vols., 1752; in The Works of Samuel Johnson (Yale Edition), vols. 3–5, edited by Walter Jackson Bate and Albrecht B.Strauss, 1969; selections in Essays from the Rambler, Adventurer, and Idler, edited by Walter Jackson Bate, 1968
Alkon, Paul K., Samuel Johnson and Moral Discipline, Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1967
Bate, Walter Jackson, The Achievement of Samuel Johnson, New York: Oxford University Press, 1955
Bloom, Edward A., “Symbolic Names in Johnson’s Periodical Essays,” Modern Language Quarterly 13 (1952):333–52
Bloom, Harold, “Dr. Samuel Johnson, the Canonical Critic,” in his The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1994;
London: Papermac, 1995:183–202
Boswell, James, Boswell’s Life of Johnson, Together with Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides and Johnson’s Diary of a Journey into North Wales, edited by George Birkbeck Hill, revised by L.F.Powell, 6 vols., Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1934–64: especially vol. 2:212–26
Burke, John J., Jr., “Excellence in Biography: Rambler No. 60 and Johnson’s Early Biographies,” South Atlantic Bulletin 44, no. 2 (May 1979):14–34
Clifford, James L., Dictionary Johnson: Samuel Johnson’s Middle Years, New York: McGraw Hill, 1979
Damrosch, Leopold, “Johnson’s Manner of Proceeding in the Rambler,” ELH 40 (1973):70–89
Greene, Donald, Samuel Johnson, Boston: Twayne, revised edition, 1989
Hagstrum, Jean, “Johnson and the Concordia Discors of Human Relationships,” in The Unknoum Samuel Johnson, edited by John J.Burke, Jr. and Donald Kay, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983:39–53
Lynn, Steven, Samuel Johnson After Deconstruction: Rhetoric and “The Rambler”, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992
Olson, Robert, Motto, Contest, Essay: The Classical Background of Samuel Johnson’s “Rambler” and “Adventurer” Essays, Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1984
Rogers, Pat, Johnson, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1993
Selden, Raman, “Deconstructing the Ramblers,” in Fresh Reflections on Samuel Johnson, edited by Prem Nath, Troy, New York: Whitston, 1987:269–82
Wharton, T.F., Samuel Johnson and the Theme of Hope, London: Macmillan, 1984
Wiles, R.M., “The Contemporary Distribution of Johnson’s Ratnbler,” Eighteenth- Century Studies 2 (1968):155–71
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