Levi Stahl in “Dr. Johnson’s Dream” attempts to solve a less disturbing mystery: Why did Dr. Johnson write in his diary on January 23, 1759, the day after his mother was buried: “The dream of my Brother I shall remember.” This simple sentence appears at the end of a prayer. Johnson’s brother, Nathaniel, had died in 1737, aged twenty-four, and we know little about him. Tons of primary sources document Johnson and his era, but as Levi notes, “Even so, in trying to learn more about Johnson’s dream, we face our perpetual enemies: silence, time, and the burning barrel.” Nevertheless, Levi weighs the evidence and offers plausible explanations, though in the end he acknowledges that the mystery is unlikely to be solved.
What’s most impressive about Levi’s detective story is his sympathetic understanding of Johnson. He was a most un-modern man. Contemporary readers, learning of his conflicted, hypersensitive nature, would send him to the shrink. Levi takes Johnson on his own terms, not ours:
“Johnson feared damnation. Today, fewer of us than in Johnson’s time are likely to dwell on that risk in our final hours. Many, perhaps most, of us remain frightened of oblivion, however. Have we left anything that will last? How quickly will the memory of our steps on this earth fade? For all his doubt, Samuel Johnson knew from at least midlife, with the publication of his dictionary, that he had made a mark. His name, at minimum, would carry through the years.”
I stalked Levi in some of his research and consulted Boswell, Hawkins, Wain, Bate, Nokes, Martin and Meyers. Only Bate mentions the dream, and it’s apparent Levi was familiar with Bate’s version of the incident. I offer only one suggestion. We know Johnson wrote Rasselas in a single week in order to pay for his mother’s funeral. Might it contain a clue to help unlock the mystery of the dream? It’s a story I reread fairly often, though not lately. Levi, in a very Johnsonian manner, generalizes from Nathaniel’s obscure death and Johnson’s enigmatic dream:
“[Nathaniel’s] fate is the one unfairly meted out to the everyday people caught up in the train of the famous, their lives reaching us only to the extent that they intersected theirs. Nathaniel must have had his fears of death, damnation, and oblivion, too. But he had no assurances about his memory. Would he have wanted them, on terms he played so little part in setting? His life could hardly have been more ordinary; even its early close was less uncommon then than it would be now. It is the very model of an unremarked life in the era of record-keeping: were it not for his brother, there would be but a handful of notices of his existence and passing buried in parish registers, unread.”
Levi’s words echo the great resounding, memorable conclusion to Middlemarch:
“But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”