Sunday, April 30, 2017

`Strike It Out'

On this date, April 30, in 1773, Boswell dined at Topham Beauclerk’s with Johnson, Sir Joshua Reynolds and other members of the Literary Club, the epicenter of witty, spirited conversation in London, founded in 1764. Edmund Burke was a member, and Edward Gibbon would be voted in soon. Johnson had nominated Boswell for membership. The talk focused at first on Oliver Goldsmith, not present but an inaugural member of the Club:

“JOHNSON. `It is amazing how little Goldsmith knows. He seldom comes where he is not more ignorant than any one else.’ SIR JOSHUA REYNOLDS. `Yet there is no man whose company is more liked.’ JOHNSON. `To be sure, Sir. When people find a man of the most distinguished abilities as a writer, their inferiour while he is with them, it must be highly gratifying to them.’”

The observation has applications beyond mere writers. We enjoy deflating those more gifted than ourselves, especially if they are otherwise without gifts. We relish having them around the way some people keep a dog for the purpose of periodically kicking him. Boswell, as usual, baits Johnson, who defends Goldsmith as a historian. (Goldsmith’s talents were modest, and he would take on any writing project that paid.) In contrast, Boswell cites the historians William Robertson, David Hume and Lord Lyttleton, and Johnson dismisses their “verbiage” and “foppery.”

Boswell persists, defending Robertson’s History of Scotland, in which he finds “such penetration — such painting.” Johnson is just getting started. Of Robertson’s writing he says: “It is not history, it is imagination.” He launches a defense of brevity and concision:

“Goldsmith tells you shortly all you want to know: Robertson detains you a great deal too long. No man will read Robertson’s cumbrous detail a second time; but Goldsmith’s plain narrative will please again and again.”

The generality is accurate, even if we have little interest in reading Goldsmith’s history of Rome. Every seasoned reader can readily tick off a list of literary gasbags, whether Hemingway or David Foster Wallace. Next, Johnson articulates the wisest practical literary advice I know:

“I would say to Robertson what an old tutor of a college said to one of his pupils: `Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.’”

I suspect the tutor in question was Johnson. When your prose satisfies only your vanity, it’s best to hit the delete key. We may derive immense pleasure and fulfillment from writing, but never forget that other people have to read it.

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