The closest I’m likely to get to London is Dr. Johnson’s poem. Besides, my London is a semi-mythical place spanning more than half a millennium of writers. As Michael McNay reports in his introduction to Hidden Treasures of London (Random House, 2015), the city’s population is estimated to have been 543,520 in 1777, the year Johnson famously remarked that “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” Today, the city’s population exceeds 8.6 million. I’ll hold on to my bookish myth.
For a man born more than three centuries ago (and in Lichfield, not London), Johnson shows up with pleasing frequency in McNay’s book. His longest appearance is the entry devoted to his house at 17 Gough Square, off Fleet Street, where he lived from 1748 to 1759. In the garret at that address, Johnson assembled A Dictionary of the English Language (1755). “Here he could install desks and bookcases for himself and the six copyists he hired to help him in compiling the first great English dictionary,” McNay writes. Few books rival it for sheer browsability. Long before the internet, the dictionary (which doubles as a generous book of quotations – almost 114,000 of them) offered an inexpensive way to while away the day. Johnson’s labor was heroic and probably would have broken a lesser man. In Samuel Johnson: A Biography (2008), Peter Martin writes of the lexicographer:
“He was beset with doubts, plagued with persistent melancholia, and not entirely certain how to proceed. He was working in a vacuum, without a useful model. Nobody had done before what he wanted to do, not at any rate the way he wanted to do it. . . . His courage cannot be overstated.”
McNay makes Johnson’s house today sound rather disappointing: “. . . there is no real sense of his presence. Of his abundant eccentricities, voluble speech, affliction by violent spasms, his scorn and generosity, nothing remains.” How could there be? That’s why we have Boswell and Johnson to renew our acquaintance. As Howard Baker writes in “To Dr. Johnson” (Ode to the Sea and Other Poems, 1966): “We are all Boswells harkening the worms.”