On this date, April 15, in 1758, Dr. Johnson published the first installment of The Idler, his third and final series of periodical essays, following The Rambler and The Adventurer. As the name suggests, The Idler is lighter fare, more relaxed, informal and comic than its predecessors, and published once a week, not twice. Sir John Hawkins suggested Johnson took on The Idler to postpone working on his long-deferred edition of Shakespeare. He was an industrious writer forever tempted by idleness, who found keeping busy the most effective means of staving off depression and madness. And Johnson needed the money. In 1758, to avoid being arrested for debt, he borrowed money from a friend. W. Jackson Bate says of the Idler essays in his biography:
“The choice of title illustrates his decision to view these essays in a casual spirit. If a `rambler,’ compared with a `pilgrim,’ travels without `settled direction,’ an `idler’ makes no claim, either to himself or others, of travelling or doing anything at all.”
Confirmed Johnsonians generally prefer The Rambler, a weightier, more profound offering, often written at a high level of moral generalization. The Idler is looser, more conversational. Satirical portraits show up more often, and it’s almost as though Johnson was experimenting with fiction. It was during the two-year run of The Idler that he wrote his only novel, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia (1759). A strain of sheer cheeky fun is notable. This is from the first Idler essay:
“He that delights in obloquy and satire, and wishes to see clouds gathering over any reputation that dazzles him with its brightness, will snatch up the Idler’s essays with a beating heart. The Idler is naturally censorious; those who attempt nothing themselves, think every thing easily performed, and consider the unsuccessful always as criminal.”
This benignly pugnacious spirit is what makes the essay, for some of us, the most attractive of literary forms. An essay might start anywhere, finish anywhere and follow (or not) any path. The only rule is avoiding, at any cost (including not writing at all), dullness, pretentiousness and self-importance. No wonder so few good essays get written.