Tuesday, February 26, 2013

`Soft, Succulent, Easily Divided'

In a letter to her friend the Irish playwright Denis Johnston, dated Sept. 28, 1938, fifteen days after Neville Chamberlain’s first meeting with Hitler, five days after the second, and one day before their third, Stevie Smith writes: 

“Did you ever hear anything like Chamberlain’s speech? Pappy, said Dr Johnson. Chamberlain’s `unreasonable’ was a high-water mark of understatement, and the piece about `larger issues’ just what Ribbentrop has been wanting and expecting.” 

The prime minister delivered his best-remembered words two days later, on Sept. 30, after returning to London from his final meeting with Hitler, when he said: 

“My good friends, for the second time in our history, a British Prime Minister has returned from Germany bringing peace with honour. I believe it is peace for our time. We thank you from the bottom of our hearts. Go home and get a nice quiet sleep.” 

The Nazi occupation of the Sudetenland began the following day, and Chamberlain’s name has become synonymous with appeasement and fatuous credulity. But what’s this about “Pappy” and Dr. Johnson? I had to look it up, first in his Dictionary, where he confirms the word is an adjective, “from pap,” meaning “soft, succulent, easily divided.” 

That’s enough to infer the meaning of Smith’s comment, and an anecdote collected by Boswell confirms it. He reports Johnson often visited an old family friend, the draper James Wickins, when he returned to his native Lichfield. On one occasion while in Wickins’ house, he leafed through a copy of Edward Harwood’s Liberal Translation of the New Testament (1768).  Johnson looked up John 11:35, translated in the King James Bible with admirable concision as “Jesus wept.” Harwood renders “and Jesus, the Saviour of the world, burst into a flood of tears.” Johnson’s reaction: “He contemptuously threw the book aside, exclaiming, `Pappy!’” 

The Oxford English Dictionary even more forcefully nails “Pappy” to Chamberlain’s reputation: “Weak, impotent; insipid, bland, characterless.”

[Smith's letter is collected in Me Again: Uncollected Writings of Stevie Smith (1981).]

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