Early on a summer morning in 1979, I opened the door to my car and there was Boyle, folded up on the front seat and covered with blood. His hair was matted with it, his nose bloody and swollen, my front seat smeared with blood. I wasn’t certain he was alive. He had wrecked his car and couldn’t remember how he got to my house. He asked me to drive him to where he thought he had left his car, and directed me to a small metal-fabrication plant at the edge of town, about a mile away. There was his car, crumpled against a brick wall, which had collapsed on the roof and hood. The cops and wrecker, it appeared, had just arrived. Boyle asked me to take him back to my house so he could get cleaned up. He showered, I gave him a clean shirt and a few bucks, and I’ve never seen him again. He spared me the obligation of delivering an ultimatum, which I knew would be futile anyway. He may have died thirty-eight years ago or he may be fat, happy and living in an ashram. I’ll never know.
Dr. Johnson befriended such a man, the dissolute Richard Savage. He was born a bastard and never held a job. Savage was already a published poet with a scandalous reputation when, in 1727, he and two cronies started a fight in a London coffeehouse. Savage fatally stabbed another patron, and the trio was arrested and locked up in Newgate. Queen Caroline pardoned Savage and he turned into a media darling. In his Life of Johnson (1787), Sir John Hawkins memorably describes Savage as “a man dropped into the world as from a cloud, committed to the care of those who had little interest in his preservation, and none in the forming of his temper.” In 1729 he published his best-known poem, “The Wanderer.” In January 1743, after years of drinking, scamming and dodging the law, Savage was arrested for debt (eight pounds) and imprisoned in Wales. He died behind bars on Aug. 1 of that year.
The following year, Johnson published his Life of Savage. Throughout, Johnson is conflicted. He wishes to find good in his friend and to understand him, but he can’t help disapproving. It’s a tension built into friendship. We want to fathom a friend’s bad or self-destructive behavior, while simultaneously condemning it and wishing to remain loyal. Johnson was an honest moralist, and doesn’t spare us (or Savage) a moral accounting. I’ve just read the book again, in the Oxford edition edited in 1971 by Clarence Tracy, and what’s most interesting is what it reveals about the author. Savage was twelve years Johnson’s senior and a published writer. There’s an element of hero worship and filial loyalty at first. Years later, Johnson would, in Boswell, adopt another dissolute though far more accomplished surrogate son. The final pages of his Life of Savage are dense with feeling and moral analysis:
“Those are no proper judges of his conduct who have slumbered away their time on the down of plenty, nor will any wise man presume to say, `Had I been in Savage's condition, I should have lived or written better than Savage.’”