Tuesday, April 15, 2014

`The Most Complete Compendium of the World'

For those fortunates born into English, and for those equally fortunate who acquire it later, April 15 is a day of jubilation. On this date in 1755, Samuel Johnson, after nine years of largely solitary labor in his lodgings at 17 Gough Square, London, published A Dictionary of the English Language in two folio volumes containing more than 42,000 entries. And eighty-eight years later, in 1843, Henry James was born at 21 Washington Place, New York City. The work of both men was, to borrow Johnson’s description of his Dictionary, “vasta mole superbus” – “Proud in its great bulk.” Both were heroes of literature. Let’s compare both writers on a subject of great bulk, London.  On Sept. 20, 1777, Boswell speculated whether his enjoyment of the city would fade if he lived there year-round, instead of visiting only occasionally from his native Scotland. Johnson, in one of his best-known observations, replied: 

“Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” 

Here is James writing in 1881-82 on London, in The Complete Notebooks of Henry James (Oxford University Press, 1987): 

“It is difficult to speak adequately or justly of London. It is not a pleasant place; it is not agreeable, or cheerful, or easy, or exempt from reproach. It is only magnificent. You can draw up a tremendous list of reasons why it should be insupportable. The fogs, the smoke, the dirt, the darkness, the wet, the distances, the ugliness, the brutal size of the place, the horrible numerosity of society, the manner in which this senseless bigness is fatal to amenity, to convenience, to conversation, to good manners – all this and much more you may expatiate upon. You may call it dreary, heavy, stupid, dull, inhuman, vulgar at heart and tiresome in form. I have felt these things at times so strongly that I have said – `Ah London, you too then are impossible?’ But these are occasional moods; and for one who takes it as I take it, London is on the whole the most possible form of life. I take it as an artist and as a bachelor; as one who has the passion of observation and whose business is the study of human life. It is the biggest aggregation of human life – the most complete compendium of the world.” 

Johnson on London: “all that life can afford.” James on London: “the most complete compendium of the world.” Both emphasize more than mere magnitude; rather, comprehensiveness. 

James owned Boswell’s Life and Johnsonian Miscellanies, both edited by George Birkbeck Hill. In an 1871 story, “A Passionate Pilgrim,” James has his narrator living in a part of London he calls “Johnsonian City,” and in “A London Life” (1888), a man and woman “lingered to talk of Johnson and Goldsmith.” Late in life, Leon Edel reports in his biography, James developed a “large Johnsonian body,” and his nephew, Harry, “realized the great authority and solemnity of the Johnsonian dictator.” Edel reports James acknowledged “he looked more and more like Sir Joshua [Reynolds’] Dr. Johnson and others who saw the picture had the same impression.” The biographer suggests John Singer Sargent, who painted James’ portrait in 1913, modeled it on Reynolds’ Johnson.

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