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A depiction of a party at Joshua Reynolds

nine men around a table set with fruit and decanters, served by a black page; Johnson on the left talking to Edmund Burke, with Boswell, Reynolds, who holds a trumpet to his ear, Garrick, Pasquale Paoli and Charles Burney, sitting and listening; Warton sitting at the end of the table to right, whispering something to Goldsmith; a Japanese screen on the right, curtains, a miniature portrait to left and a portrait bust to left; Reynolds’ pictures of Puck (Mannings 2142) and the Infant Academy (Mannings 2092) hanging on the wall; after James E Doyle; with semi-filled letters. 1848

Friends and readers,

It hasn’t been as long as it feels since I wrote the first of two blogs on the recent EC/ASECS conference at Howard University. A hacking attack on my website intervened, but all’s well for now. I here combine a report on the later afternoon panel of the first day, a session of readings, and the presidential address on the second day with a talk given at the Washington Area Print Group (a book history group) at the library of Congress because the subject (Samuel Johnson) was the same as the panel. I can offer the gist only of most of them.


Opie’s Samuel Johnson

Back to Friday afternoon, November 3rd. The chair was Anthony Lee. The first two speakers emphasized the modernity of Johnson. In “Samuel Johnson and Samuel Beckett: Like-minded masters of existential emptiness,” Thomas Curley suggested that Beckett and Johnson shared a fellow feeling, were intellectual soulmates even though Beckett was an atheist, and Johnson argued forcefully for holding to his Christian faith. While Beckett was at Trinity College, he was helped to find his voice by research into and reading of Johnson’s attachment to Hester Thrale. Beckett explored 23 sources, filled 3 notebooks, altogether 200 pages. In Beckett’s letters he talks of Johnson as madly ineffectually in love with Hester Thrale and insecurity. The 1930s saw ground-breaking psychological studies of Johnson, but, as Beckett conceded, there is no evidence for his specific belief that Johnson was also impotent. Krapp in Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape is a Johnsonian character who lives his life by way of tape recordings who looks at himself as a failure in life and is eager to be gone. I thought of David Nokes’s biography of Johnson where Nokes argues that Johnson lived with a deep sense of having failed himself in life.


Samuel Beckett

Greg Clingham’s paper was on Johnson and the Argentine writer, Jorge Luis Borges. Borges had a deep love for English; he read Don Quixote in English, loved Shakespeare, Whitman, Emerson, also Victor Hugo (presumably in English translation?). Gregg discussed how scholars of Borges ignore Borges’s attraction to Johnson and how Johnson’s name appears and re-appears in Borge’s conversations. Maria Kodama, his personal assistant for many years whom he married functions like Boswell, and appears to get in the way of scholarly work. Borges saw so much of himself in Johnson. Borges was especially interested in how impossible it is to fix language, and poetic meditative texts. So is Dictionary Johnson though the language he uses to describe these linguistic phenomena is different (see below).


Jorge Luis Borges

Then Brian Glover spoke a contrarian view while Anthony Lee attempted to find common ground: Glover insisted Johnson is not at all modernist, “not our contemporary.” He began with theories about print culture where it’s suggested that digital communication returns us to silent orality, talk. The famous first Boswell scholar, Frederick Pottle, attempted to make Boswell into a vast publishing venture, turning Boswell’s very contemporary talk style into print, beginning in 1967. Brian told us the familiar stories of the finding of the papers and the early history of book collecting, and presented the men as belonging to a culture of white male homosocial dreams where they were to live life together through building a library.


Formal portrait of James Bowell by George Williams

Anthony Lee’s paper was then about how there has been a slow overturning of stereotypes of Johnson (he’s naive, bigoted) and the various scholars gradually revealed views towards women, colonialism, politics that anticipate the later 20th century. Technology has had an impact. Yet Johnson resists modernity too; like T.S. Eliot he might be seen as an Anglican high culture modernist and connect to what is found in Bloomsbury writers and artists. Tony quoted passages from Idler No 60, Leslie Stephen, and Boswell: in the first Johnson is satirizing literary criticism of the close reading type (Dick Minim), in the second Stephen shows Johnson in his chair talking consciously happy and enjoying himself like some Socrates providing more deep thought than many many printed passages; in the last Beauclerk’s curious denial that Johnson was religious: Johnson seldom went to church and when he did, he appeared not to pay attention to most that was happening or said (like Hogarth’s Idle Apprentice).

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Kate Winslett as Marianne in a scene from the 1995 Sense and Sensibility (not in the book at all)

Mid-Saturday morning was to have been a keynote address; the speaker was ill, and three people talked from published books in her stead. Juliette Wells has written a book on Austen which includes a section on how early American readers felt about her through what Wells finds in their marginalia. Basically it seems Austen’s novels did not appeal to these ordinary readers. One reader was very glad when she finished Emma; another called Emma a silly book; readers are responding to a character in the book without any sense of the author’s presence or irony or stance towards the character. Mr Knightley is “tolerable” but Emma “intolerable. Frank is a “sneak;” Mrs Elton a “vulgar common woman.” Wells suggested that the earliest readers of Austen did not care for her books.

In a discussion afterwards, her assertion that Austen wasn’t liked by her earliest readers was questioned. She immediately backtracked and said of course British readers liked Austen; she is just talking about Americans; then questioned on her assertion about Americans in general, she backtracked again. It is hard to prove anything by the marginalia of a few chance comments in books by readers who are not thinking in any clear way about what they are reading. Listening to her I recognize what I often see in on-line groups’ postings about how they read books. I’m also not surprised that Austen’s satire was not appreciated by these few readers. There is a desire to sentimentalize Austen — seen in today’s movies: that urge has played a large role in popular Janeite re-vamping and reversing of the core meanings of Austen’s texts.

Beth Lambert and Eugene Hammond returned us to reading John Radner’s book on Johnson and Boswell’s friendship. Beth showed us how by careful analysis of key interactions in small seemingly unimportant uncrucial documents about and between Boswell and Johnson over a period of time, John pulled out a truthful depiction of a complex relationship. Eugene picked passages from Johnson’s letters to Hester Thrale, which he used to discuss the art of biography. How can one go deep into a personality and re-create a living presence in a book.


Jonathan Swift by James Bovard

After lunch Eugene got up again to give the presidential address, which was on his books and years of research on Jonathan Swift. His perspective was our own time of 2017 and the (now so clearly seen) dangerous decline of serious studies in the humanities, in academic subjects which teach people about their history, their culture, the political and art worlds they live in. We need to teach what counts as documentary evidence, how to use it, and how we live today in an international community. First he told about his career, and how in high schools he found how necessary it was to teach students to go outside narrowly framed issues and texts. He studied Swift’s texts and life and worlds for 25 years. That nowadays we are confronted with disrespect for a life thus lived. He then in effect overturned many stereotypes of Swift (as an embittered misanthrope, a social isolate &c); I wish I could have stayed for Eugene’s paper later in the afternoon asking whether Swift hated his relatives. Early on Eugene discovered Swift’s fundamental mistrust of religion used in the public sphere, his strong anti-colonialist streak. At the end of the talk Eugene described Swift’s specific milieus, the people he was surrounded by in Ireland. As a boy he was cut off from his nuclear family, and persuaded Esther Johnson to come to Ireland to live near him. Eugene then went through Swift’s works: A Tale of a Tub (the outsider perspective), Gulliver’s Travels, his attempts to persuade the English gov’t to give money to rebuild churches; once in Ireland the Draper’s Letters objecting to the English ruthless exploitation of Catholic Irish people. Swift founded a hospital. Most delightful of all was the way Eugene went over the Journal to Stella: a wonderful misnamed diary where we find how very particular acts and laws influence Swift’s and his friends’ lives intimately. Swift had many friends who left poems dedicated to him, one wrote a life. Eugene ended on a story told by Swift of his grandmother.

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Mary Melliner as Jenny Diver and Roger Daltry as Macheath (1987 BBC Beggar’s Opera, directed by Jonathan Miller)

As I wrote in my first blog, I was unhappily not able to stay for the later afternoon sessions of this second day. I was a member of the Molin panel (for the literary prize for fine graduate students’ papers) and would have listened to Courtnee Fenner’s “My dear pretty Jenny:” The Blackening of Jenny Diver in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera and Polly: an Opera, as she was one of those who submitted a proposal to hand in her paper for the context. I particularly regretted not being able to attend the panel on Defoe. At lunch I had sat next to Joseph Rudman who gave one of the Defoe papers. He told me he remembered Jim and about conversation he had had with Jim at another luncheon about physics and Richard Feynman. Joseph worked as a physicist and professor for many years before turning to literature. His paper was on “the Rothman Group’s stylistic study of Defoe’s contribution to Robert Drury’s Journal.” He also told me about how he was reviewing one of the volumes of the new Cambridge edition of Shakespeare: like those for Richardson and Austen, enormously over-annotated sumptuously produced volumes. It seems large amounts of annotation do not necessarily produce a lucidly-presented work. Also that the latest fashion in Shakespeare scholarship is dissolving his canon and now 18 works hitherto attributed to Shakespeare are being contested as only partly by him or not at all. Joseph said it was clear some of these people had not gone back to the original studies of the printing of the Folio. What he had to say was more interesting and suggestive about our profession today than many papers. He was very witty and I enjoyed talking about Jim with him.

But this lacuna gives me room to end this second report with another paper given by Tony Lee at the Washington Area Print Group on a later Friday afternoon, November 17th (a couple of weeks later). He spoke on paratexts and intertextuality in Rambler No 2 and Johnson’s Dictionary. As I wrote in my blog-essay for Sarah Emsley’s Jane Austen series on Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, “For there is nothing lost, that may not be found: Charlotte Smith in Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Tony’s paper was suggestive about intertextuality (you need only have tiny texts to bring in wide layered meaning); here I go over how this relates in his view to mentorship (we can be mentored by texts) and paratexts (the prefaces).

Tony first said in his view Johnson’s Rambler (208 periodical essays) constitutes his greatest wholistic literary single literary work. Rambler No 2 looks at the dangers of looking into futurity using classical mottoes from Addison and Steele. The translation by Elphinstone in the essay suggests that “fond fleeting hope” is destroyed by looking ahead with anxiety; we are “defeated” before we try to fly. Meditations on mottoes like these led Johnson to read Pope out of their perspective in superior poetry. In the same way Dryden can be said to have mentored Pope as Pope studied Dryden in his original and translation writing. Dryden was also an important person for Johnson who quoted Dryden 157 times in his Dictionary. Tony then traced densely saturated quotations (mottoes) to allusive sources.

One example of genealogy: Johnson did not like John Gay’s Rural Sports(1713) and uses lines from it to define words (despeople) hostilely so that if you are diligent enough to search out the source texts, you can begin to read Johnson’s dictionary as a repository of Johnson’s creative life and thinking.

Oil painting on canvas, River Landscape, with Fisherman, and distant Ruins of an Abbey, manner of George Smith of Chichester (Chichester 1714 – Chichester 1776) and John Smith (Chichester 1717 – Chichester 1764).Tall tree in foreground; river runs across the centre of the picture. A fanciful ruin of slender Gothic arches on an eminence at right. A fisherman seated on near bank.

After a while all literature begins to become entangled. Tony said Pope may be said to have been mentored by Statius, a Silver Age poet. Johnson himself is thus deeply grounded in the past as he contemplates how to look at the future. Tony then quoted the familiar statement of T.S. Eliot on how tradition is central to the development of an individual talent to its highest degree and ended by quoting Herman Meyer (from The Poetics of Quotation in the European Novel) that “the charm of quotation emanates from a unique tension between assimilation and dissimilation.” The writer may make the other person’s texts their own in their book and link these to a new environment but these quotations remain detached and hold onto original meaning too. In my blog I suggested that Austen entangles Smith’s texts and her very life into Persuasion, but remains detached from these (as she does from the quotations from Byron and Scott, which themselves don’t change). Tony believes that Johnson was aware of these intertextual relationships as he read, though he would not use the language we do so not have quite the same concept.

This theory is particularly appealing to me who have lived much of my life apart from social groups and feel I was mentored by texts too, especially in my 20 years of translating poetry. I didn’t use the word, mentorship, but it’s what I meant when I described how I came to my theory of translation as I was translating the poetry of Vittoria Colonna and Veronica Gambara. See my on-line essay on translating.

As this is an Austen blog, I should add I think Austen was “mentored” by many authors this way — how else could she reach them, and several are strongly influential on her work, e.g., Shakespeare, Johnson, Cowper, Burney, Radcliffe, Smith, the French memorists. She never met just about any of these people and yet their thoughts and attitudes taught her much. the point is so often made how Austen chose not to go to a party where Madame de Stael was said to be. She didn’t need to. She had Delphine and Corinne on her shelves, and then in her mind. What could she have gotten by a social interaction in such an environment that could compare to communing with these books.

So ends my conference and lecture reports for the year 2017.

Ellen

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