Henry Wallis (1830-1916), Dr Johnson at Cave’s the Publisher (1854)
Friends and readers,
It’s probably not in any reviewer’s best interests (and I write a lot of reviews, all sorts), to let stealth snark bother her. Woolf said of reviewing (after a long life making money writing what are arguably her greatest works of genius), it’s a form of “intellectual harlotry:”
Vanity and the desire for ‘recognition’ are still so strong among artists that to starve them of advertisement and to deny them frequent if contrasted shocks of praise and blame would be as rash as in introduction of rabbits into Australia … But then unpaid the bill; unpaid the bill; It is the bill — the bill — ” (from a Hogarth Press pamphlet, 1941)
Woolf thought if this “‘author-service’ must be done, it should be sent direct to the author, so the “‘poisoned fang”‘ might disappear in favour of the thoughtful essay, and the writer could pay three guineas.” (from Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf, Ch 39, pp 708-9). But Johnson is long dead. So once in a while it feels right to risk a protest.
In the December 6th, 2016 issue of Times Literary Supplement Kate Chisholm performed a deft hatchet job on the most recent volume of the Yale works of Samuel Johnson: Biographical Writings: Soldiers, Scholars, and Friends (Volume 19), edd. O.M. Brack, Jr and Robert DeMaria, Jr. The four columns (a half-page on p 11) are not on-line publicly, but I have it on good authority (mine own as well as a few friends who tell me it’s their favorite weekly publication) that people still read paper copies of centrally important good periodicals (especially touching their own profession) and many pay for access on-line.
Chisholm disses Johnson’s biographies (the mature as well as these early ones) repeatedly in this short span for laziness, lack of information, and bias — when she’s not summing his life and career up as “most of the time writing for money,” that of “a hack,” and his daily life as that of a man without social skills: “tone-deaf, rough-mannered” and tactless. She ends on how in obituaries even (epitaphs) he is “curiously wordy and shocking in their bluntness.” He was ungrateful: just a month after Cave’s death (Johnson’s earliest boss and benefactor) was not especially kind: “[Cave’s] mental faculties were slow.” She calls the piece damning with faint praise, “Johnson would no doubt have insisted he was only being honest.” Worse yet Johnson commits the faux pas of telling how people suffered when they died and what they died of. The header of her article is “Not too much information,” a play on her conclusion in this piece: on death [for once?} “[Johnson]’s truthful, maybe, but possibly too much information.” Note the dig, “maybe.” She would clearly approve of how often in obituaries families hide what the person died of. It’s the courageous who tell. Three paragraphs in she does cite a few words and phrase from DeMaria’s argument about the value of these as well as Johnson’s later biographies: he “rescued biography from hagiography,” “developed a new kind of life-writing, ‘fiercely honest,’ ‘sterner, more factual and empirical.’ But there is no explanation as to how DeMaria came to such an idea except a reference to Johnson’s 51 Lives of the Poets, which she herself goes on to suggest suffers from the same problems as the earlier works.
Certainly Johnson did not do extensive original research but relied on what he knew from his extensive reading, knowledge of the people, their works, and help from assistants, and what books lay to hand. The point was not to produce the huge volumed detailed life such as Boswell did for him — and in the same way Elizabeth Gaskell did for a woman writer, in her masterpiece The Life of Charlotte Bronte. Johnson’s lives are portrait-lives in the Geoffrey Scott, Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf school. Their strength is in his telling what psychological and social truths he knew about the people, linking this to what they wrote or their art (say in gardening) and then analysing in 18th century versions of close reading. This was a revolutionary change from biography hitherto which were overwhelming family products, marmoreal carefully censored accounts and documents of seemingly respectable lives. John Aubrey’s short lives are so important because he anticipated the same de-mystification. She also manages as a sort of aside to say that he wrote no biographies of women writers. This lack has been put down to the publishers who commissioned the group, but I’d agree there was nothing stopping Johnson from adding on, making suggestions, and within ten years Mary Hays (among others) was writing and compiling women writers’ lives. Further that he made fun of women taking on any authority. And the 18th century had been an era where women were (however unacknowledged in secondary texts) as dominant and important as men in all areas, including the stage (if you include beyond their plays, their roles as actresses).
There’s no evidence in this article that she’s ever read what biography was like in the era nor does she discuss the assertion that it had been mostly hagiography. And anyone who knows anything about the tribulations of biographers the attitude of family members and those who hold copywright as friends are often just as biased and self-protective as earlier “keepers of the flame” (Ian Hamilton’s phrase).
What grated most though is that Chisholm should charge Johnson with laziness, copying others, and unexamined bias when from those of her books and essays I’ve read I know these to be her traits; it’s seen writ large in her biography, Fanny Burney: her life (Vintage, 1999) where she puts together the portrait of Burney as found in Joyce Hemlow’s seminal thoroughly-researched moving acccount of Burney’s life, together with concise re-hashings of Margaret Doody’s and other recent feminist critic’s readings of the novels. The exception is Camilla where Chisholm reverts to Hemlow’s reading. She is also no friend to feminism and mocks Doody’s book: she presents herself as surprised by feminism (it is not necessary): why anyone should write in this preposterous way as Doody does she cannot comprehend. I tend to agree that Burney is no radical, and surmise we see so little interest in Camilla; or a Picture of Youth in conferences as opposed to Burney’s other three novels, is its plot-outline, over lesson-teaching more forbiddingly resists transformation into a rebel text. Austen had this right in her marginalia to her copy of Camilla:
Since this work went to press a Circumstance of some importance to the happiness of Camilla has taken place, namely that Dr Marchmont [has died] (LeFaye, JA Letters, 4th edition, 14n.)
To be fair, Burney as narrator acknowledges the “injustice, [his] narrowness, and [his] arrogance,” but she has let hid didacticism control that narrative for hundreds of pages and this is all the refutation we get.
Cards on table: Chisholm wrote My Hungry Hell, an open attack on anorexic girls masquerading as explanation out of identification (!): it’s possibly the most resentful and spiteful description of anorexic girls as I’ve come across. Chisholm claims to have been anorexic and be now “cured:” the first thing to understand is anorexia is never cured; it’s like alcoholism, and it is a complex syndrome, not just the result of selfish anti-social indulgence. Chisholm has it in for anyone not socially conforming. It’s a bad book because it pushes for force feeding and would like to take down websites where such girls reach one another and some compassion, find some community. I go on about this because this blog is also about women’s art which means women’s lives. I’ve noticed that otherwise Chisholm often writes out of what might be called a pretense of a mild Caitlin Flanagan stance. This attracts attention, sells, while covers her back.
I thought also for the first time in a while of a group reading and discussion I led years ago on an Eighteenth-Century-Worlds Yahoo listserv, and how quickly a number of people took a strong dislike to Johnson for his “rudeness,” “bullying, “insulting remarks,” and “bigotry.” John Radner (who has since written and published a book based on a careful study of Johnson and Boswell’s friendship) was among the readers. The impulse which made Chisholm look upon anorexic girls as anti-social freaks may be the motive force for her column against Johnson. I rush to say most of the people participating enjoyed Boswell’s book and went on to read a number of Johnson’s works. I wrote short article on this experience, which was published (2004) in the Johnsonian Newsletter: “Johnson and Boswell Forever!.” Sometime later I read on that listserv with a few others and posted weekly on David Nokes’s conscientiously researched (no charge of laziness here) Samuel Johnson: A Life, where Nokes came to the conclusion that Johnson lived with a deep sense of himself as having failed his gifts in life.
This past Thanksgiving I had remembered how much Johnson’s books had meant to me (“Touchstone books on Thanksgiving Day”) when I was in my late twenties. Since then a conversation with a friend reminded me that when Jim was finishing his college degree (B.A.) at Hunter College in NYC, Jim took a course in eighteenth-century literature and wrote a paper on “The War of Johnson’s Ear.” He got only a B because he grated on his professor who had lectured on Johnson as a poor poet who lacked “an ear.” Jim had taken that course looking forward to reading Hume, Burke, Paine, Johnson and found himself asked to spend a great deal of time (far too much according to Jim) discussing Blake’s marginalia where Blake wrote brief angry outbursts against Reynolds. Jim had written about Johnson’s “London: A Poem,” an imitation of a Juvenal’s satiric farewell to Rome. Tonight I’ll end on a very different kind of poem by Johnson, one of my favorites, from a favorite volume of Johnson’s writing I have in my house: J. D. Fleeman’s Samuel Johnson: The Complete English Poems (a St Martin’s Press book)
Skia, An Ode on the Isle of Skye (“Ponti profundis clausa recessibus” presumably Englished by Fleeman)
Enclosed in the deep recesses of the sea,
howling with gales beset by rocks,
how welcome, misty Skye, do you
open your green bay to the weary traveller.
Care, I do believe, is exiled from these regions;
gentle peace surely dwells in these places:
no anger, no sorrow plans traps
for the hours of rest.
But it is no help to a sick mind
to hide in a hollow crag or wander
through trackless mountains
or count the roaring waves from a rock.
Human virtue is not sufficient unto itself,
nor is the power granted each man
to secure for himself an untroubled mind,
as the over-proud Stoic sect deceitfully boasts.
Thou, almighty King, govern, sole arbiter,
the onrush of the stormy heart
and, when Thou raise them,
the waves of the mind surge up
and, when Thou calm them,
they fall back.
It was written while Johnson was traveling in the Hebrides, during his famous tour with Boswell through Scotland. I dream of traveling to Scotland one day myself, one of two trips I’d like to take before I call a permanent halt.