“Samuel Johnson has always skirted me. My parents doted on him (still do), and as a child I had a one-line role in a playlet about Johnson’s Dictionary. But I’ve never actually looked him over, or even much of Boswell. That’s because they seemed less artists than scholars, and scholarship’s not my dish. So I am pleasantly surprised to be reading John Wain’s treatise.”
“Dish” or not, some of the best artists are bona fide scholars. Among the moderns, consider Nabokov, J.V. Cunningham, C.H. Sisson, Guy Davenport and Eric Ormsby. I’ve encountered others who share some variation on Ned Rorem’s judgment in “A Cultured Winter” (An Absolute Gift: A New Diary, 1978), but have never come close to sharing it. Dave Lull and I were talking the other day about genius, that overused notion, and we agreed that some geniuses seem superhuman, possessing capacities impossible for humbler beings to imagine. Chief among them are Shakespeare and Bach. Other geniuses are more essentially human, like us but more so. That’s Johnson’s niche. He was a genius of humanity. We can imagine his gifts without possessing them. Shakespeare made it look easy while Johnson labored.
Wain’s Samuel Johnson: A Biography (1975) is no “treatise.” Like Johnson, Wain was a working-class native of the Midlands, with a deep affinity for the older writer. His biography appeared two years before W. Jackson Bate’s and four before James L. Clifford’s Dictionary Johnson. Those were good years for Johnson enthusiasts, and my timing was superb. I first read Johnson and Boswell as a college freshman in 1970 and took to them immediately. By 1975 I had read most of their work available and much of the secondary literature.
Rorem rightly describes Wain’s prose as “not one bit `poetic’ but straightforward, researched, responsible,” and adds: “The lexicographer comes off not as the usual old-time Noël Coward, but as an old-time Edmund Wilson in all his feisty brilliance.” Rorem intends that as a compliment, but it misfires. Johnson was nothing like Wilson in terms of scholarship, moral and spiritual profundity, and simple human decency. In fact, Rorem seems really not to quite approve of Johnson, or he approves only of those qualities he shares with, say, George McGovern. He calls Johnson “a comfortable liberal, outspoken against slavery and capital punishment and prison abuse. But there’s little `clubable’ talk of painting or sculpture, and none whatever of music.” No, Johnson was made of sterner stuff. He was a wit suffused with gravitas, a very rare species. In The Rambler #106, published on this date, March 23, in 1751, Johnson writes:
“There are, indeed, few kinds of composition from which an author, however learned or ingenious, can hope a long continuance of fame. He who has carefully studied human nature, and can well describe it, may with most reason flatter his ambition . . . It may, however, satisfy an honest and benevolent mind to have been useful, though less conspicuous; nor will he that extends his hope to higher rewards, be so much anxious to obtain praise, as to discharge the duty which Providence assigns him.”