Friday, March 18, 2011

`I Never Wished to Have a Child'

Without heat or excitement, out of a grim sense of obligation, four second-graders pulled the coat off a classmate, chased him across the playground and knocked him to the pavement. Their target is slow and sweet-natured, almost an innocent, a natural-born victim, and enjoyed the chase until it hurt. I hauled them to the office of the principal who was already dealing with a kindergartener who had slapped a classmate and left finger-shaped red marks across his cheek. The slapper said, “I don’t like him talking to me.” All the perpetrators were required to write “think papers,” explaining their actions and promising never to do it again.

On Wednesday evening, April 10, 1776, Johnson (age sixty-seven) and Boswell (thirty-five) dined at the home of Mrs. Thrale where the conversation as usual was various, sharp and stimulating. Boswell reports:

“I said, I disliked the custom which some people had of bringing their children into company, because it in a manner forced us to pay foolish compliments to please their parents.”

Boswell’s objection stands, as little has changed in two hundred thirty-five years. The obligation to flatter dolts, to praise Junior for speaking in complete sentences and staying out of prison, is more stridently enforced than ever. Boswell continues:

“JOHNSON: `You are right, Sir. We may be excused for not caring much about other people’s children, for there are many who care very little about their own children. It may be observed, that men, who from being engaged in business, or from their course of life in whatever way, seldom see their children, do not care much about them. I myself should not have had much fondness for a child of my own.’”

Johnson, of course, is baiting the company, always good sport. Boswell, in the final pages of the Life, writes: “Johnson’s love of little children, which he discovered upon all occasions, calling them `pretty dears,’ and giving them sweetmeats, was an undoubted proof of the real humanity and gentleness of his disposition.” Now, back to the heart of Johnson’s matter, as reported by Boswell:

“MRS. THRALE: `Nay, Sir, how can you talk so?” JOHNSON: “At least, I never wished to have a child.’”

We can wonder about Johnson’s candor on the question of progeny but not his unaffected love and respect for children – though he and most of his contemporaries are unlikely to have used such language. Johnson would have made a splendid father, and has served as a benign father-figure to millions of readers. I’ve met the parents of some of the kids involved in Thursday’s casual violence, and know with certainty “there are many who care very little about their own children.”

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