Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Dr. Johnson, I presume?

It is the tercentenary of Samuel Johnson's birth this year (for you non Latinists, that's from 'tertius', meaning "third," and 'centus', meaning "a hundred." So that's the 300th anniversary). Johnson was a fascinating literary figure who dominated the 18th century English literary world. Here is a great review of two new books on Johnson from the New Criterion:

As time goes by, it generally softens asperities in the character of men and women from the past. We have quite a cuddly image of Ben Franklin, but to those who met him he could seem truculent and abrasive. Something rather different has happened in the case of Samuel Johnson. He used to be presented as a formidable figure—an overbearing literary potentate, if not a clubroom bore whose table you would avoid in the dining room. People thought him domineering and arrogant, qualities reflected in his nickname “the Great Cham.” Oldstyle British actors gave him a plummy upper-class bark, even though the evidence showed that he spoke with a strong Midlands accent, not too far from the nasal intonation you can hear on the streets of Birmingham today.

It has all changed dramatically in the last half-century. In fact, the shift has its roots even further back, in an essay by an outstanding scholar from Berkeley, first published in 1944. Bertrand Bronson’s study “Johnson Agonistes” set the agenda for much of what has come out in recent decades, together with work by other writers emphasizing the “perilous balance” that Samuel maintained in his psychic health. It is not surprising, then, that a sense of internal conflict pervades these new versions of Johnson’s life—the first two, but not the last, of a crop of biographies marking the tercentenary of his birth in this year.

Read the rest here.

No comments: