Even the most industrious (or indiscriminate) reader encounters insurmountable obstacles, writers and books he cannot abide. For me this would include the obvious cases like John Steinbeck and Harper Lee, the less obvious like Cervantes, A Tale of Two Cities and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and whole libraries of unreadable matter including almost everything originally written in German. Let me add another canonical name, Nathaniel Hawthorne. His prose is indigestible and I don’t know how Melville stomached the prig, but a reader has alerted me to a passage of interest in the “Lichfield and Uttoxeter” chapter in Our Old Home: A Series of English Sketches (1883). Hawthorne served as U.S. consul to England and lived there for almost six years. Lichfield is Dr. Johnson’s birthplace, and Hawthorne says he was familiar with Johnson’s “sturdy English character” from reading Boswell when young. He sketches a true portrait of a child who reads adventuresomely:
“It is only a solitary child,--left much to such wild modes of culture as he chooses for himself while yet ignorant what culture means, standing on tiptoe to pull down books from no very lofty shelf, and then shutting himself up, as it were, between the leaves, going astray through the volume at his own pleasure, and comprehending it rather by his sensibilities and affections than his intellect,--that child is the only student that ever gets the sort of intimacy which I am now thinking of, with a literary personage.”
Hawthorne says he doesn’t much care for Johnson’s “grandiloquent productions” but like many readers is drawn to him as “a man, a talker, and a humorist.” That’s unfortunate but forgivable. Hawthorne is loyal to Johnson but misunderstands him. “His awful dread of death,” he writes, “showed how much muddy imperfection was to be cleansed out of him, before he could be capable of spiritual existence.” Johnson was a profoundly spiritual man firmly rooted in the ordinary. His religion was common sensical, without mysticism. No man was more compassionate in an age which, like our own, is dismissive of much that is essentially human. Johnson, Hawthorne says, “meddled only with the surface of life, and never cared to penetrate further than to ploughshare depth.” Rubbish. Hawthorne’s conflicted feelings about Johnson as a man mirror his judgments of England as a nation:
“Many of the latent sympathies that enabled me to enjoy the Old Country so well, and that so readily amalgamated themselves with the American ideas that seemed most adverse to them, may have been derived from, or fostered and kept alive by, the great English moralist. Never was a descriptive epithet more nicely appropriate than that! Dr. Johnson's morality was as English an article as a beefsteak.”
Hawthorne almost redeems himself, though I still can’t read The Scarlet Letter.