Thursday, November 08, 2012

`I Have No Design to Gratify Pride by Submission'

If something is popular, something must be wrong with it. I see the fallacies in such an assumption but I also see the wisdom. Shakespeare and Louis Armstrong were popular in their day and remain so, but art is not a democracy. Most books, music and other art, popular or not, are mediocre or worse. With experience we learn to discriminate, to sort according to quality. Some of us share these conclusions with others, who accept, reject or modify them. One criterion of acceptance into a canon is memorability. Another is durability. In 1972, the English novelist, poet and biographer John Wain published A House for the Truth, a collection of critical essays about such topics as Flann O’Brien, George Orwell in the nineteen-thirties and Boris Pasternak. As an epigraph he chose a sentence from The Rambler #208, published March 14, 1752: 

“I have seen the meteors of fashions rise and fall, without any attempt to add a moment to their duration.”

This was the last of the Rambler essays written by Johnson. For two years without fail, they had appeared every Tuesday and Saturday, and were written soon after “The Vanity of Human Wishes” and while Johnson labored at his Dictionary. W. Jackson Bate writes of The Rambler in his biography: 

“However serious Johnson’s other intentions, he wanted the work to sell, and a title that would openly proclaim it at the start as a series of moral discourses would have at once cut it off from the popular journalistic prototype on which he hoped to capitalize.” 

In other words, Johnson was no blockhead. Nor was he a sycophant or panderer. Rambler #208 mingles humility and defiance. “I have never been much a favourite of the publick,” he writes, “nor can boast that, in the progress of my undertaking, I have been animated by the rewards of the liberal, the caresses of the great, or the praises of the eminent.” Like any honest writer, he wants readers, but on his own terms, without toadying. From Johnson’s next paragraph, Wain chose his epigraph. It reads like an apologia for tending a blog: 

“But I have no design to gratify pride by submission, or malice by lamentation; nor think it reasonable to complain of neglect from those whose regard I never solicited. If I have not been distinguished by the distributors of literary honours, I have seldom descended to the arts by which favour is obtained. I have seen the meteors of fashions rise and fall, without any attempt to add a moment to their duration. I have never complied with temporary curiosity, nor enabled my readers to discuss the topick of the day.” 

In 1974, Wain published his biography of Johnson. He also wrote a radio play about Frank Barber, Johnson’s servant, and his final work, a monologue titled Johnson is Leaving, was produced in 1994. Both men were born and raised in the Midlands, and Wain felt a deep kinship with Johnson. Included in A House for the Truth is the essay “Dr. Johnson’s Poetry.” He judges the “indispensable” poems to be “London,” “The Vanity of Human Wishes,” “On the Death of Dr. Robert Levet” and (“the pointed and energetic jeu d’esprit”) "One-and-Twenty." Wain writes:

“One of the most attractive and compelling features of all Johnson’s writings is its very individual blend of the personal with the highly universalized. His tone is magisterial, his language presses always towards generalization, and yet Johnson, the man himself, is always palpably present. He never hesitates to make a personal utterance, even in contexts which would seem to demand an entirely neutral, impersonal note.”


Nige said...

Wain also compiled an excellent anthology of Johnson's writings about himself, Johnson On Johnson (published in Everyman's Library). I think I have a copy somewhere...

Anonymous said...

John Wain's biography was the first on Samuel Johnson that I read. After reading today's blog, it seems to me that, two decades later, it's time to reread it.