Tuesday, March 14, 2017

`To Pass On the Lessons of His Experience'

In the first of his Rambler essays, published on March 20, 1759, for which he was paid four guineas, as he was for each of the subsequent 207 essays in the series, Samuel Johnson writes:

“. . . I purpose to endeavour the entertainment of my countrymen by a short essay on Tuesday and Saturday, that I hope not much to tire those whom I shall not happen to please; and if I am not commended for the beauty of my works, to be at least pardoned for their brevity.”

Spoken like a natural-born blogger. Except in the case of his Dictionary (which he labored on while writing the Rambler essays), Johnson was a sprinter, a spurter, not a long-distance man. Even his sole novel, Rasselas, is written in detachable, essay-like scenes. For such a writer, one without grandiose visions or overweening ambitions, the essay comes as second nature. Consider the rest of the paragraph cited above:

“But whether my expectations are most fixed on pardon or praise, I think it not necessary to discover; for having accurately weighed the reasons for arrogance and submission, I find them so nearly equiponderant, that my impatience to try the event of my first performance will not suffer me to attend any longer the trepidations of the balance.”

Note that Johnson wishes to “try” his first essay, an etymologically precise choice of verb. The father of the form, Montaigne, named his works Essais, from essayer, “to try.” An essay is an attempt at articulating and, with a little luck, understanding something. Essayists learn as they go, and leave little room for experts. In his Dictionary, Johnson defined an essay as a “loose sally of the mind,” and a sally as a “frolick.” John Wain in Samuel Johnson (1974) tells us it wasn’t money that drove Johnson, blockhead or no blockhead, to undertake writing his periodical essays:

“He could have done without the money, and no one could have accused him of idling or of failing to produce a decent home for his wife. No, it was a more profound emotional and intellectual hunger: the need to communicate with others, to pass on the lessons of his experience and the illumination that came to him in meditation and prayer.”

Wain notes the prayer that Johnson composed when he resolved to write The Rambler: Almighty God, the giver of all good things, without whose help all labour is ineffectual,
and without whose grace all wisdom is folly: grant, I beseech Thee, that in this my undertaking, thy Holy Spirit may not be withheld from me, but that I may promote Thy glory, and the salvation both of myself and others. Grant this, O Lord, for the sake of Jesus Christ. Amen. Lord bless me. So be it.””

We, his readers, know Johnson’s prayer was answered. Wain tells us Johnson envisioned “a more weighty version of the familiar essay, with very little room for entertainment and none at all for flightiness.” Imagine pitching that idea to a magazine editor today. On this date, March 14, in 1753, Johnson published The Rambler #208, his final essay in the series. In it he formulates the Writer’s Lament”:

“He that condemns himself to compose on a stated day, will often bring to his task an attention dissipated, a memory embarrassed, an imagination overwhelmed, a mind distracted with anxieties, a body languishing with disease: he will labour on a barren topick, till it is too late to change it; or, in the ardour of invention, diffuse his thoughts into wild exuberance, which the pressing hour of publication cannot suffer judgment to examine or reduce.”

Despite all of that, Johnson says he “look[s] back on this part of my work with pleasure, which no blame or praise of man shall diminish or augment.”

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