Samuel Johnson: A Life

Helen Deutsch writes:

On Saturday, July 30, Dr Johnson and I took a sculler at the Temple-stairs, and set out for Greenwich. I asked him if he really thought a knowledge of the Greek and Latin languages an essential requisite to a good education. JOHNSON. ‘Most certainly, sir; for those who know them have a very great advantage over those who do not. Nay, sir, it is wonderful what a difference learning makes upon people even in the common intercourse of life, which does not appear to be much connected with it.’ ‘And yet (said I) people go through the world very well, and carry on the business of life to good advantage, without learning.’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, sir, that may be true in cases where learning cannot possibly be of any use; for instance, this boy rows us as well without learning, as if he could sing the song of Orpheus to the Argonauts, who were the first sailors.’ He then called to the boy, ‘What would you give, my lad, to know about the Argonauts?’ ‘Sir (said the boy), I would give what I have.’ Johnson was much pleased with his answer, and we gave him a double fare. Dr Johnson then turning to me, ‘Sir (said he), a desire of knowledge is the natural feeling of mankind; and every human being, whose mind is not debauched, will be willing to give all that he has to get knowledge.’

How can we know Samuel Johnson without summoning him through the reanimating power of James Boswell’s Life? For the many scholars, writers, readers and collectors who call themselves Johnsonians, this is the near impossible task. Boswell first met Johnson in 1763, in the back parlour of a bookshop. It belonged to a friend of Johnson, Thomas Davies, who described ‘his aweful approach … somewhat in the manner of an actor in the part of Horatio, when he addresses Hamlet on the appearance of his father’s ghost, “Look, my Lord, it comes.”’ ‘Remember me’ was Boswell’s mandate from the start and the ghost’s injunction took on poignancy when the Life was published in 1791, seven years after Johnson’s death. Within its confines, the great man still lives.

(LRB 9 February 2012)