Wednesday, September 18, 2019

'Difficulty in Finding a Wiser Book Anywhere'

As a child, we remember, Dr. Tertius Lydgate enjoyed reading Gulliver’s Travels, the dictionary, the Bible – and Rasselas. Obviously, a most unusual child. As an adult, George Eliot tells us, Lydgate would read “any sort of book that he could lay his hands on: if it were Rasselas or Gulliver, so much the better, but Bailey’s Dictionary would do, or the Bible with the Apocrypha in it. Something he must read, when he was not riding the pony, or running and hurling, or listening to the talk of men.” Lydgate may be a poor judge of marriage material but his taste in books is superb.

I can no longer read the Penguin paperback edition of The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia (1759) I was assigned for an English literature class in 1971. The pages are brown, the spine is broken and the whole mess is held together with a rubber band. I keep it for sentimental reasons, as my entrée to Johnson’s work. The same professor introduced me to Boswell’s Life. Several years ago I acquired Vol. 16, Rasselas and Other Tales, in the “Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson.” It’s a sturdy hard cover, built for rereading.

I love the exchange in Chap. 11, “Imlac’s Narrative (Continued)—a Hint of Pilgrimage,” Imlac tells the prince, “There is so much infelicity in the world, that scarce any man has leisure from his own distresses to estimate the comparative happiness of others.” He enumerates “the particular comforts of life” enjoyed by Europeans. Rasselas replies: “They are surely happy who have all these conveniences, of which I envy none so much as the facility with which separated friends interchange their thoughts.” Imlac gets the last word in the chapter: “The Europeans are less unhappy than we, but they are not happy. Human life is everywhere a state in which much is to be endured and little to be enjoyed,” which suggests the human condition after three centuries remains unchanged.

I think of the novel as an imaginatively malleable form. The eighteenth-century English novel was particularly elastic – Swift, Richardson, Fielding, Smollett, Sterne and Johnson. I think of Rasselas as a fable or collection of parables, though I’m content to call it a novel, despite the characters being geometrically flat in the modern sense. In The English Novel (1912) George Saintsbury says that “when Johnson wanted to communicate his thoughts to the world in a popular form, we see that he chose the novel.” Denying that Rasselas is a genuine novel, Saintsbury writes, “is characteristic of clever undergraduates.” Saintsbury is shrewd and generous: “You will have difficulty in finding a wiser book anywhere.”

Dr. Johnson was born on this date, Sept. 18, in 1709.


Cornflour said...

Honestly, I'm not a cruel man; but, in this case, I can't resist quoting a bold Amazon reviewer:

"Samuel Johnson was writing for people who were puzzled over questions that have since been thoroughly investigated and answered, so many the problems that the prince wishes to answer are no longer serious questions any longer. But the prince's adventures in search of answers is charmingly told. The book is worth reading just to get a flavor of what issues were being considered by the intellectuals of Samuel Johnson's day."

Richard Zuelch said...

I love this post, especially the reference to George Saintsbury (1845-1933), who was probably the most influential British literary critic of his time (roughly the 1880s through the 1920s), as I'm sure you know. His book, "A Short History of English Literature" (1898) was still being reprinted into the 1970s. Thanks for mentioning Saintsbury - and Samuel Johnson.

Speaking of Johnson, are you aware of this book: "Samuel Johnson," edited by David Womersley; 21st Century Oxford Authors series (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), xxxviii + 1,294 pp. It's an anthology of Johnson's writings, arranged chronologically, not by genre, thus giving you a good sense of his development as a writer.