Monday, December 15, 2008

Sam Johnson & Hester Thrale.

I've always liked Dr. J. I walked from Ebury Street near Sloane Square and Pimlico over to his marvelously restored house in the City, in a warren where Carlyle got lost looking for it pre-tourist signage, the last time I was in London, around my birthday on a sweltering summer (for there, meaning humid) afternoon. The London Transport had called a strike. Yet, this put me into a peripetatic frame of mind and gait taking me back to Johnson's own municipal scale, although my step probably exceeded his poor, gaitered, bulldog lurch.

The rather edgy lady who served as the caretaker told me that her parents back around 1912 or some distant year had begun the refurbishing. Stocked with period furniture, I recall the "harmless drudge's" study, with its tiny writing desk and stiff-backed chair. That, reams of paper, inkwell, and quill, were all a scholar needed back then. Besides one of history's most amazing intellects, seasoned with abundant wit and matchless insights, whether expressed in a dictionary, biography, table-talk, or in the journalism that, Adam Gopnik reminds us in his "Man of Fetters" book review in the December 8, 2008, New Yorker, after much struggle in a big city with a new medium, secured his fame.

John Wain's biography, which I recall with pleasure after reading it for pleasure amidst the rigors of my first year in grad school, tells any one much; Gopnik mentions two new biographies, a daunting task for anybody following Boswell. However, as with many of Gopnik's reviews, he tends to barely glance at the work purportedly under evaluation, and turns to the man himself. And, in this case, his woman, Mrs Hester Thrale. As the title of his article suggests, and Steadman's rather hard-to-decipher sketch repeats, the "fetters" refer to a couple of suggestions-- hidden in the French suited more to the erotic and secretive-- of a masoschistic relationship Johnson enjoyed, and later lamented, with the lady who kept much company with him, along with his diligent, if pesty, Scots amanuensis.

Relating the facts, Gopnik's alert to relevance.
"He had the misfortune to have arrived in London in a time not unlike this one, with the old-media dispensation in crisis and the new media barely paying. The practice of aristocratic patronage, in which big shots paid to be flattered by their favorite writers, was ebbing, and the new, middle-class arrangement, where plays and novels could command real money from publishers, was not yet in place. The only way to make a living was to publish, for starvation wages, in the few magazines that had come into existence."
I posted yesterday on Chuck Klosterman's dismay at the new media's imposition of a seemingly relentless demand of immediacy that stokes our present frenzy to keep up, with a mass of information that rarely distills wisdom. James Gleick's optimism at Google's Book Search, contrarily, may be seen as a counterpart to Johnson's Dictionary, which Gopnik interprets as a way to assure middle-class, up-and-coming readers that the language could be grasped, and data could be tamed for another public eager for references, facts, and au courant respect from their presumed social betters.

Gopnik continues, parenthetically:
(The new order had also produced a permanently bitter and underemployed class of writers, who had meant to be Popes but were left to be merely beggars in the square outside, and they made their living working for penny-a-line pamphlets and cheap gossip tabloids, creating a constant mouse scream of malice that runs in counterpoint to Johnson’s grave sonorities.)
This reminds me of my own position, underemployed among many with Ph.D's who cannot even find reliable work equivalent to mine. Untenured, freeway flyers, doomed to teach remedial or frosh comp endlessly, perhaps we too form a class of testy and touchy overeducated (if one can indeed be such) intellectuals, the lost generation born too late for the postwar booms that filled cow colleges with profs and co-eds. Reading Bernard Malamud's "A New Life," set in his Cascadia (read Oregon) State before I wandered one frigid night among its own farms and dorms, I thought about how many of my contemporaries would never scoff at what, to that NYC transplant, seemed a death sentence of a third-tier position in that English department. There are far lower tiers in today's plethora of campuses.

Johnson escaped his sentence not by sentiousness but diligence. He rose, with the Dictionary and his criticism, to the heights of London literary society he deserved. "The Great Cham" held forth more often in drawing rooms than taverns, at last. Into the higher, more suburban, less urban, more urbane circles he rose; in 1765 he met Hester, wife of a wealthy scion of a brewer family. Anchor Ale, Gopnik assures, still thrives, but perhaps not on import shelves here? A triangle formed, but not one that seemed to involve the pushy, arrogant, annoying husband!

Boswell often forced his way into the Thrale household. Mrs. Thrale very nicely said that he had a “gold ticket” to the table, and for almost twenty years she, Boswell, and Johnson worked out the geometry of a complicated triangle of shared passions and resentments: the younger woman and the younger man each establishing a special intimacy with the older man; the older man half in love with the woman while remaining on respectful terms with her husband; the younger man jealous of the woman’s hold on his mentor while still recognizing that he alone could play the role of the son that the older man had never had. There’s a wonderful passage in the “Life” when, as Boswell records, he and Hester looked at each other after some Johnsonian moment, recognizing that, as she whispered to him, “There are many who admire and respect Mr. Johnson; but you and I LOVE him.” The stress is, in every sense, in the original.

After dealing with the S&M supposedly beneath the Frenchified allusions in those couple of places in their correspondence, Gopnik goes on, for me, to more lasting impacts.
No critic has ever been wiser about the limits of criticism, and about how few rules can ever be made for writing; Johnson is the model of a reactive critic, seeing when a piece of writing was made, and how it works, then and now. His premise was always that something that had long pleased readers must have pleased them for a reason; sometimes it was because of a quality or a problem in their time that had made the work seem briefly pleasing, sometimes it was because of some permanent quality of imagination or truth. The critic’s job was to distinguish between what belonged to the history of taste and what belonged to the canon of art, and to try to explain what made the permanently pleasing permanently please. For Johnson’s great question is not how to write, or what to write, but why write. His criticism provides a simple answer: to help us enjoy life more, or endure it better.

One reason we still may read Johnson circa 1760 on Shakespeare long after Bradley or Dover Wilson, despite I'd second their value: Johnson touches our humanity. He takes the side not of the don, but the perhaps perplexed or hesitant reader who comes to a text as he did. Not as the Oxford scholar -- for he soon dropped out of what was then certainly the haven of the wealthy, if predictably second-rate, gentleman on the make or baronet on the take-- but as the eager if diffident newcomer who wanted to enter the pages that, in the eighteenth century, beckoned to a self-improving class also seeking not edification alone, but entertainment. Thus the rise of the novel; "Rasselas" may hearken more to "Utopia" than "Pamela," but at least it's brief!

Johnson has no illusions about criticism’s ability to fix or cure. Critics are to writers not as doctors are to patients but as bearded ladies are to trapeze artists—- another, sadder act in the same big show. “Every man can exert such judgment as he has upon the work of others; and he whom nature has made weak, and idleness keeps ignorant may yet support his vanity by the name of a critic,” he wrote. His low opinion of the professional critic gave him a high opinion of the amateur reader. He voices our doubts more than he does his period’s platitudes, and tells the truth about tedious texts: nobody ever wanted “Paradise Lost” to be longer than it is; metaphysical poetry is fascinating but exhausting to read; Shakespeare’s puns can be tiresome and his clowns unfunny.

Klosterman, despairing as a recently arrived professional critic from our version of the Midlands, in the suitably-titled "Esquire" (as with "GQ," hints echo of what the Tatler or Spectator once held sway over in an earlier smart set), might take comfort from Johnson, as understood by Gopnik. We who labor as amateurs for unpaid Amazon ratings, blog comments, or our sheer passion to learn and share what we know, may also find in this poorly-renumerated new medium of the Net, our own small justification. You and I participate in this same big Net show, its small parade of endless one-acts, stunts, and poses.

I often voice my doubts; I may point out the tedious; I prefer to set aside a work unreviewed rather than savage it. I lack Johnson's depth or Gopnik's privilege. Still, I know how difficult the act of creating music, words, or energy can be for the well-intentioned independent scholar, laboring adjunct teacher who writes on the side, or the hordes of hopeful spare-time chroniclers of our own restless and philistine age. (I hold less compassion for the tenured, the pundits, or the favored.) As with all times and all cities, we think our times the worst, our classrooms the nadir, our politicians the pits. But, reading Johnson, we're reminded of the need to acclaim excellence, warn against fulsome acclaim of the mediocre, and to seek the higher craft in whatever shrieks and whirls around us in this flurry of texts and sounds and images.

(Ralph Steadman, who else, illustrated Gopnik's piece.)

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