Tuesday, February 23, 2016

`The Lessons of the Satirist'

“In short from what I have before heard of this man, and what I have now read of him, my opinion with respect to him, is a mixture of admiration and contempt.”

So writes John Quincy Adams, the future president and son of a future president, in his diary on July 15, 1786. The entry comes four days after his nineteenth birthday, and he writes not as a literary critic but as a patriot, for the object of his “admiration and contempt” is Dr. Johnson, who had died less than two years earlier. In 1769, Johnson had said of the rebellious American colonists, as reported by Boswell: “I am willing to love all mankind, except an American. They are a race of convicts, and ought to be thankful for anything we allow them short of hanging.” The young Adams has been reading Hester Thrale Piozzi’s recently published Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson, LL.D., During the Last Twenty Years of His Life. His conclusions are a familiar caricature of Johnson as bully:

“He appears to have been a brute; a mere cynic, who thought himself the greatest Character of the age, and consequently, that he was entitled to do just as he pleased and to assume the lawgiver in Sentiments and opinions as well as in Literature, but neither his good opinion of himself, nor all his writings put together will ever place [him?] in the first rank of authors.”

Of course, the Founding Fathers consulted Johnson’s Dictionary when writing the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Federalist Papers, and several U.S. Supreme Court justices, including the late Antonin Scalia, have quoted Johnson in their opinions. But just six days after Adams’ diary entry, his mother and the future First Lady, Abigail Adams,writes to her son from London (after quoting Pope):

“I have met with many persons here, who were personally acquainted with the dr. They have a great respect for his memory, but they all agree that he was an unpleasent [sic] companion who would never bear the least contradiction. Your sister Sent you Mrs Pioggi [sic] anecdotes of him. Boswells are too contemptable to be worth reading.”

We know John Adams’ library included the four-volume 1783 edition of The Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets (1779-81). In 1784, the second president wrote to his son, the sixth: “Purchase Johnsons Lives of the Poets which will amuse Us on the Road.” I pursued the Johnson/Adams connection when I learned that both men had translated satires by Juvenal. Johnson’s are well-known and much admired: “London” and “The Vanity of Human Wishes.” Adams translated the seventh, thirteenth and fourteenth Satires, though never published the fourteenth. The thirteenth came out in 1801, and is probably the first version of Juvenal done by an American. The seventh he published in 1805, and you can find an excerpt in Juvenal in English (ed. Martin M. Winkler, Penguin Books, 2001). Of Satire VII, Adams wrote:

“Let us hope that the lessons of the Satirist, may produce an effect upon a young and rising nation, which they could not operate on a corrupted and declining [`imperial Rome and, by implication, the British monarchy,’ Winkler notes].”


rgfrim said...

On reading Boswell you learn that Johnson's contempt for Americans was based almost solely on his suspicion of system that called itself democratic but embraced slavery. Given that view it is hard to sympathize with his American critics.

Edward Bauer said...

Perhaps the use of "place" by itself is deliberate, as in horse racing. As always, I enjoy your work every day. I bought Zoroaster's Children last week at Vroman's in Pasadena -- a very nice bookshop. I haven't been able to get too far, but the beginning is delightful.