“Johnson was on the whole a just man, but he was almost excessively human.”
Not the severest verdict ever pronounced. What does it mean? Almost anything, depending on how much you value an honest assessment of what it means to be human. The more credulous of Rousseau’s offspring see untrammeled hippie innocence. The rest of us discern a more complicated state of affairs. We know the best are capable of committing atrocities; the worst, of performing (briefly) saintly deeds. George Saintsbury is writing of Johnson in The Peace of the Augustans, published in 1916, the year of the Somme. The book comes with a delightful subtitle: A Survey of Eighteenth-Century Literature As a Place of Rest and Refreshment. His observation comes in the context of Johnson’s mixed evaluation of Jonathan Swift as man and writer. Saintsbury concedes that Johnson “pretty certainly felt some fear of his own melancholy view of life passing, as it did in Swift's case, into unmitigated misanthropy.” Like Johnson, Saintsbury lifts specifics into shrewd generalities. Here are the sentences subsequent to the one at the top:
“Everybody must have observed in his fellow-men, and he must be a very excellent or a very obtuse person who has not observed in himself, at least a tendency, requiring to be guarded against, to exaggerate not merely personal offences, but personal neglects, slights, and other misères. It is hardly too much to say that presumed negative injuries of this kind rankle in sensitive dispositions even more than open and positive attacks or affronts.”
Those who like their understanding of others neat, without much complication, ought to look elsewhere, not to Swift and certainly not to Johnson. When readers tell me Johnson is dull and depressing, I know that for them life is dull and depressing. Like Shakespeare and Tolstoy, Johnson is life, the whole contradictory mess, heaven and hell mortally mingled. We have much to learn from him about how to be human. The person who most reminds me of Johnson in the way he overcame obstacles (including poverty), asserted his genius and became a decent human being is Louis Armstrong. In Sprightly Running: Part of an Autobiography (1962), John Wain, who a decade later would publish a biography of Johnson, writes of him:
“Amid all this settled conviction of hopelessness, he was sociable, welcomed friends, reveled in talk, devoured books. All this I did too. No wonder I took over his attitudes en bloc; but they were the wrong attitudes. Brave, dignified, and admirable in his case, they were foolish and even cowardly in mine. When Johnson wrote the sentences that rang in my head, he was old, racked with diseases, emotionally shattered by the deaths of those he loved, with nothing ahead but a failing of powers and a death that might or might not appear as a merciful release. Such a man would make himself ridiculous and contemptible by counterfeiting youthful abandon; but it was just as absurd for me, at the age of twenty, to adopt his granite attitudes.”
We can best imitate Johnson by fumblingly learning what it means to be human and striving to write well.