Thursday, July 26, 2018

'A Grease-Stained Halo Round Your Memory'

 The first sentence in the first chapter of Samuel Johnson (1977) by W. Jackson Bate: “Samuel Johnson has fascinated more people than any other writer except Shakespeare.” And the book’s final sentence: “With all the odds against him, he had proved that it was possible to get through this strange adventure of life, and to do it in a way that is a tribute to human nature.”

The sentiments nicely bracket Dr. Johnson, our enduring engagement with his life and work, and the scholarly concerns of Bate. Biographies like his, written in a spirit of admiration and respect, are no longer fashionable. Cynical iconoclasm and celebrations of “transgressiveness” (that is, lousy behavior) are the rule. To call Bate and his book “old-fashioned” is accurate but tone-deaf. It condescends to a scholar who is also an artist. In Johnson, Bate saw a man like the rest of us, only more so. Johnson had a genius for being the mess we call human. He was strong and weak, devout and tortured by doubt, rational and mad, and Bate is at home with Johnson’s contradictions. He doesn’t stretch after an imaginary consistency his subject never possessed. Bate is a close reader of Johnson. Late in the book he writes about the mature prose in Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets (1779–81):

“The use of short independent clauses permits another peculiarity of Johnson’s later prose, especially in the more formal sections of the Lives. That is, the extraordinarily high number of verbs, which give his style the unusual strength and vigor that none of his imitators could ever capture. In the major English prose styles, verbs average about 10 percent to 14 percent of the total words. In Johnson’s earlier work, the number is already fairly high (about 13 percent) and in the later work we find, for pages at a time, the highest sustained average in English—about 17 percent.”

Data analysis doesn’t have to be pedantically dry. For purposes of comparison, the second paragraph of this post contains 153 words, eighteen of which are verbs, for a percentage of about 11.8. The paragraph is not self-consciously “Johnsonian.” It contains too many brief sentences to merit that description, and the rhythms are less regular, but Johnson’s prose styles inform almost everything I write. He sits among the internal editors. After Boswell, Bate is his finest ambassador to readers. In “On First Looking into Bate’s Life of Johnson” (The Calligraphy Shop, 2003), the poet Ben Downing addresses Johnson:

“Professor Bate has served you faithfully
despite being an American.
As you once ambered others, he has spun
A grease-stained halo round your memory,

“embalming you in neither the debauched
fluids of the ordinary Joe
nor the priggish ether of the hagio.”     

Bate died on this date, July 26, in 1999 at age eighty-one.

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