“Johnson was right.”
So writes Samuel Beckett to Barbara Bray on May 3, 1972, in The Letters of Samuel Beckett 1966-1989 (Cambridge University Press, 2016). Beckett had a lifelong infatuation with the other Sam, Johnson. The editors leave us with a terse and disappointing annotation: “In the absence of Barbara Bray’s letter to SB, it is not known what the reference to Samuel Johnson may have been.” The context is of no help.
In Beckett’s Disjecta: Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment, published in 1984, editor Ruby Cohn wrote of his 12-page Human Wishes: “Although Beckett filled three notebooks with material for a play on the relationship of Dr Samuel Johnson and Mrs Thrale, only this scenic fragment of 1937 was actually composed. Pauses, repetitions, and formal patterns are strikingly prophetic of his drama to come.”
Beckett was especially devoted to Johnson’s Prayers and Meditations – seemingly an unlikely devotion. Despite obvious differences in religious faith, class, nationality and historical context, the philosophical and temperamental kinship between Johnson and Beckett is obvious. Beckett wrote a letter on July 11, 1937, to Mary Manning that James Knowlson quotes in his biography, Damned to Fame (1996):
“There won’t be anything snappy or wisecracky about the Johnson play if it is ever written. It isn’t Boswell’s wit and wisdom machine that means anything to me, but the miseries that he never talked of, being unwilling or unable to do so. The horror of annihilation, the horror of madness, the horrified love of Mrs Thrale, the whole mental monster ridden swamp that after hours of silence could only give some ghastly bubble like `Lord have mercy upon us.’ The background of the Prayers and Meditations. The opium eating, dreading-to-go-to-bed, praying-for-the-dead, past living, terrified of dying, terrified of deadness, panting on to 75 bag of water, with a hyrdocele on his right testis. How jolly.”
The sympathy between two minds separated by two centuries is obvious. Here is Johnson's definition of “melancholy” in his Dictionary of the English Language: “A disease, supposed to proceed from the redundance of black bile. Quincy. A kind of madness, in which the mind is always fixed on one object. Milton. A gloomy, pensive, discontented temper. Sidney.”
But perhaps the absence of a specific Johnson reference in Beckett’s letter to Bray is not so disappointing. Now it reads like a blanket endorsement of Johnson’s grimly stoical sensibility.