Tuesday, September 29, 2009


From Andrew O'Hagan's delightful review of several new Samuel Johnson biographies in the Oct. 8 New York Review of Books:

"Britain is a very changed country; it has changed morally. It might be said that its people's sense of what life is all about has altered more in the last fifty years than it did in the previous 250, beginning in 1709, when Samuel Johnson was born at Lichfield. Yet one of the things that hasn't changed is the popularity of the nation's most popular word: "nice." When I was growing up, everything worth commenting on could probably be described either as "nice" or, controversially, "not nice." My mother would invite me downstairs for a "nice cup of tea" before I went off to school to be taught lessons by "that nice teacher of yours." At the same time, Prime Minister Edward Heath, who had "a nice smile," was "not being nice to the unions." Tony Blair seemed "very nice" at first, but he wasn't very nice to his friend Gordon Brown. "Nice try," my old headmaster would say if he read this very paragraph, "but your diction could be nicer."

"... these works show us Johnson at his most invigoratingly ethical, committing himself to hardship as he asks writers to depend on the favors of their own talent and nothing else."

"He used Shakespeare, Milton, and Dryden at the head of an army of brilliancy; he sourced and copied over 100,000 examples for the Dictionary to best illustrate the meanings and uses of English words. In doing so he revealed a republic of letters as a rich, voluble, human culture, a summit of what men might do to civilize their days and exalt their common circumstances. The Dictionary indeed is a work of art, encapsulating an almost infinitesimal belief in the magic of poetry and prose. The book reveals nothing less than a living culture represented by marks on paper."

"Like all Christians he made a fetish of the hereafter, but in his best manners Johnson was an angel of the busy earth, a monarch of the secular, thumping up the public highway with a hunger for life and its literary representations."

"'Nothing is too small for such a small thing as man," he once said, a legend that should be engraved on the heart of every journalist worth his salt and every novelist worth her ribbon."

" In his own judgment, there was much to be done and too slender means with which to do it, but he believed that only work, only application, could justify the claims of a writer. Johnson would smile at the way modern authors can fret for years over their novellas, those who cup their works like they are small birds being carried through a blizzard, the outside world aiming only to maim their precious cargo.

No one should be measured by Johnson's yardstick, but his general willingness to ink up and face the world might also serve as a good example to those, writers and readers alike, who see no real distinction between the art of writing and the art of embalming, where a little fluid and a lot of solemnity are used to eke out the appearance of the dead. Johnson had the courage to make his life equal to the task of improving the world that sustained him."

And a quote from Dr. Johnson himself:

"Milton...has judiciously represented the father of mankind, as seized with horror and astonishment at the sight of death.... For surely, nothing can so much disturb the passions, or perplex the intellects of man, as the disruption of his union with visible nature; a separation from all that has hitherto delighted or engaged him; a change not only of the place, but the manner of his being; an entrance into a state not simply which he knows not, but which perhaps he has not faculties to know...the final sentence, and unalterable allotment."

No comments: