Sunday, July 29, 2018

'He Resolved to Be Happy'

My boss, the woman who hired me twice to work as the science writer for the engineering school, has retired after twenty-three years with Rice University. She and her husband have moved fulltime to their farm near Industry, about eighty miles northwest of Houston. Until now they have maintained a house in the city and spent weekends on the farm, where they keep a herd of twenty-five cows. They’ve always thought of the farm as their true home and the place in Houston as more of an expedient waystation. She is country by birth and sensibility, growing up in a small Texas town where her father owned the grocery. Next door was a cotton gin.

Dr. Johnson sometimes wrote essays that read like short stories. Think of them as morality tales. On this date, July 29, in 1758, he wrote in The Idler about a fictional friend, Ned Drugget, a merchant who started modestly in the city as a dealer in “remnants.” Drugget is a model of frugality and hard work:

“He had now a shop splendidly and copiously furnished with every thing that time had injured, or fashion had degraded, with fragments of tissues, odd yards of brocade, vast bales of faded silk, and innumerable boxes of antiquated ribbons. His shop was soon celebrated through all quarters of the town, and frequented by every form of ostentatious poverty.”

All along, Drugget saves to retire to the country, “like the mercers on Ludgate-hill, and was resolved to enjoy himself in the decline of life.” No “golden years” for Johnson. A mercer is “a person who deals in textile fabrics, esp. silks, velvets, and other fine materials” (OED). Johnson writes:

He talked three years of the pleasures of the country, but passed every night over his own shop. But at last he resolved to be happy, and hired a lodging in the country, that he may steal some hours in the week from business; for, says he, when a man advances in life, he loves to entertain himself sometimes with his own thoughts.”

With Johnson, one half-waits for disappoint or some other reversal of fortune. Drugget “resolved to be happy,” and is, as I expect my boss to be. Johnson concludes: “After dinner company came in, and Mr. Drugget again repeated the praises of the country, recommended the pleasures of meditation, and told them that he had been all the morning at the window, counting the carriages as they passed before him.”

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