BOOKS: The gargantuan and terrifying lexicographer
Sunday, January 25, 2009
SAMUEL JOHNSON: THE STRUGGLE
By Jeffrey Meyers
Basic Books, $35, 552 pages
SAMUEL JOHNSON: A BIOGRAPHY
By Peter Martin
Harvard University Press, $35, 608 pages
REVIEWED BY JAMES SRODES
It should have been one of the great meetings in the evolution of the English language. In the late 1750s, Dr. Samuel Johnson, famed for his monumental "Dictionary of the English Language," attended a London meeting of a charity that sought to teach orphaned and abandoned children of all races throughout the American colonies. Another attendee was Benjamin Franklin, equally famous for his electricity discoveries and his authorship of the internationally popular "Poor Richard's Almanack."
There they were: The codifier of the mother tongue of Britain and the man who became the most creative force in altering that language into a uniquely American cultural force. The two men even shared a common best friend. For 20 years, printer William Strahan had provided Franklin with a steady supply of printing type, presses and support for his chain of newspapers. At the same time, Strahan had nearly bankrupted himself during the nine years it took Johnson to create the huge 2,500-page two volumes of 42,000 words and 116,000 illustrative quotations that established English as an eventual standard of global communications.
Franklin could not resist a nudge at Johnson's expense. "I never trust a man who can only spell a word one way," he is supposed to have quipped. With some justice, Johnson was offended. Since he despised Americans in general and fiercely opposed the independence struggle by the colonies, Johnson spent the next 15 years of Franklin's stay in London refusing ever to meet him again and slandering him at every turn within the ever-expanding circle of mutual friends.
As we approach the 300th anniversary of Johnson's birth, it is tempting to daydream about what might have happened if the two great language experts had joined forces. One of the problems in taking the speculation any distance is that the many-layered and contradictory personalities of the two giants get in the way of considering how language drives cultures and shapes national identities. It is not just a cliche that Britain and America are "two nations divided by a common language." Johnson and Franklin personify that division.
Not surprisingly in a tercentenary year, there are no fewer than a dozen new books out in commemoration. In addition to the two biographies reviewed here, there are reprints of Johnson's famed "Dictionary," the justly famed six-volume biography done by his friend James Boswell and even a life of Hester Thrale, Johnson's legendary friend who is supposed to have provided him with masochistic bondage and whipping whenever the great man felt a bit despondent.
The two biographies before us are two very different approaches to putting some context around the life of this gargantuan (literally) personality who was the great lexicographer of his day, that day's leading aphorist, political journalist, essayist and moralist; a rescuer of the work of William Shakespeare, a campaigner against slavery and a foe of American independence. At the same time, Johnson was a rude bully of revolting table manners, indifferent personal cleanliness, grotesque facial and physical features, alarming tics and noises and enough psycho-sexual problems to accommodate an entire separate chapter of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders of the American Psychiatric Association. And he hated the Scots and generally despised anyone who was not English.
Both books are meticulously researched and well written. Jeffery Meyers is a prolific biographer whose previous subjects have ranged from Katherine Mansfield, D. H. Lawrence, Joseph Conrad, Edgar Allen Poe, Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway to Humphrey Bogart and Gary Cooper. As his title suggests, he emphasizes the daunting roadblocks Johnson had to overcome to achieve the astonishing range of literary creations he produced during his lifetime. Deaf, nearly blind, scarred by smallpox lesions, grossly obese, manic-depressive, alcoholic, Samuel Johnson on a good day was terrifying. Yet the list of his devoted lifelong admirers and supporters ranged from actor David Garrick through fellow writers such as Oliver Goldsmith and Edward Gibbon, to economists and scientists such as Adam Smith and Joseph Banks.
The Meyers book is recommended for readers who want to learn more about the politics, culture and atmosphere of Johnson's London and Britain in the tumultuous 18th century. But this means too little space is devoted to Johnson the writer and to his wide-ranging essays in The Rambler periodical he published, or to his editing of the neglected Shakespeare texts. Nor do we get much of a sense of what made the "Dictionary" itself such a monumental work.
Mr. Martin's treatment does focus more on the impact and meaning of Johnson's prodigious literary output. Also, he is the better writer of the two. His narrative follows a straight chronological line where Mr. Meyers invariably interrupts his story to digress into the various political upheavals and change in the monarchy that may be valid background but may not be as necessary for readers already aware of Johnson but not of his personal story.
One of the more interesting arguments advanced by Mr. Martin is that Johnson never intended his "Dictionary" to be the final word on the English language. By defining words with referrals to their first usage, he intended merely to stabilize the language so that the meaning of words would be more precise and thereby make communications between conversant more efficient. He quotes Johnson in the plan he published before he undertook the nine-year project, "Language is the work of man, of a being from whom permanence and stability cannot be derived. Like humans, words do not remain in a time warp, a linguistic limbo: Like their author, when they are not gaining strength, they are generally losing it."
Despite what he intended however, Johnson's choice of the words to define (42,000 out of an estimated common vocabulary of the times of twice that many words), of the quotations he used to explain origins of words and even of the authorities cited all served to produce a High Tory, Church of England and aristocratic standard of language that set up a barrier against the infiltration of more commonplace and popular coinage from being acceptable.
In that respect, Johnson and Franklin could never have been friends. Johnson's "Dictionary" still lives in the reluctance of its successor, the Oxford English Dictionary, to enlist new words into acceptable usage until long after they have become valid. In contrast, Franklin encouraged a young Noah Webster to adopt a more inclusive and, arguably, more democratic lexicography; one more descriptive than prescriptive. The difference between the two attitudes goes a long way to explain why, as we near having half a million words in common English usage, that most of the innovations originated in America.
• James Srodes' latest book is "Franklin: The Essential Founding Father."