This is a very nice 'read' but a difficult book to evaluate. Its success will turn on the nature of the audience. For the general reader with a passing awareness of Johnson, Boswell and the members of the Club this will be an informative, well-written introduction. It contains a number of useful illustrations and 31 color plates. The subject(s) are interesting and the author writes with a broad literary and historical perspective, offering hard facts and solid, common sense. His evaluations of personalities tend to be spot-on. He is, in general, politically balanced, fair and objective. He does not hesitate to criticize his subjects when they deserve it and he calls out putatively genial figures like Reynolds and Burney for their respective treatments of their sister and daughter.
For a scholar of the period the reaction is likely to be more critical. First, the subject is vast. Boswell's Life in the Oxford edition is approximately 1400 pp. in length. The 400 pp. of text here cover Johnson's life, Boswell's life, and the work of Burke, Reynolds, Gibbon, Garrick and Adam Smith, towering figures in their own ways whose experience can only be summarized briefly. Since the subject is The Club, non-members receive short shrift or none at all. Absent an extensive discussion of Hume this cannot hope to be a serious introduction to eighteenth-century intellectual history, a discussion which many of my philosopher friends would want to include Thomas Reid—a pivotal figure in the Scottish enlightenment--who goes unmentioned.
When I was first introduced to this material in 1964 the thrust of Johnson studies was to overturn the vestiges of nineteenth-century caricatures of dear old Dr. Johnson, a purveyor of hard argument and immortal bon-mots. The 'postwar' Johnson was a writer and thinker. His prose style alone was the subject of two fine books by Wimsatt; his political thought was covered by Donald Greene, his moral thought by Paul Alkon, his religious thought by Chester Chapin and Maurice Quinlan, key thematic aspects of his thought by Bate and his literary criticism by Jean Hagstrum, and on and on. The Johnson that we encounter here is much more the old Dr. Johnson than the new Samuel Johnson. While the author is aware of a great deal of recent material on Johnson we see very little of the effects of the postwar renaissance in Johnson studies, including the standard biographies of two-thirds of Johnson's life by James L. Clifford.
While the author is balanced toward Boswell, indicating his personal as well as his literary shortcomings, he gives him far more space in the book than his experience warrants. This is more 'Johnson and Boswell and some subsidiary figures' but the subsidiary figures, particularly Burke and Smith, are of enormous importance compared with Boswell and deserve far more attention than they are here accorded.
There are some bows to modern concerns—Johnson's relationships with women, his views of slavery and colonialism, e.g.—but Johnson's mentoring and supporting of women writers, his fierce opposition to slavery and to colonialism have long been known. Johnson's 'radicalism' was explored by G. B. Hill (1835-1903) and Donald Greene's stunning article, "Samuel Johnson and the Great War for Empire" appeared in the Clifford festschrift in 1971 (and was delivered as a conference paper prior to that).
Since the book's putative subject is The Club, I was surprised to see so little material concerning it. In my 1964 class, e.g., we were given photocopies of original materials concerning The Club that were being studied by James Osborn at Yale. One of the most memorable was a bill for one of the meals, with an extensive list of all of the items consumed, including ice (which would have been obtained from the fishmongers). The total bill was divided by the number of attendees and the tab for each exceeded a pound, an enormous sum at a time when many tradesmen made less than 20 shillings a week. Johnson gave away approximately 2/3 of his 300-pound pension and lived for a year on the remainder.
Scholars will desire some reconciliation between the author's claim that Burke was a spellbinding orator (p. 2) with his common designation as the 'dinner bell' of the House of Commons, whose written texts were more easily appreciated without the vehemence and the Irish accent which accompanied the spoken versions. Not to belabor the point, but the designation of Johnson's Rasselas as a 'brief novella' (p. 38) will startle all of the Johnsonians who would label it a 'philosophic tale' (some would call it an 'apologue') to be compared with (as it has been, endlessly) Voltaire's Candide. Almost nothing is said of Johnson's Rambler, which many consider SJ's finest work and little is cited from the 'Lives of the Poets' which the author considers very important (e.g. the devastating treatment of Gray's Odes, which were enormously popular at the time).
Bottom line: as an introduction for the general reader, 4.5 stars; as a book for more serious students of the subject, 2 stars.
- Hardcover: 488 pages
- Publisher: Yale University Press; 1 edition (15 April 2019)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0300217900
- ISBN-13: 978-0300217902
- Product Dimensions: 24.4 x 16 x 3.3 cm
- Boxed-product Weight: 839 g
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- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 17,534 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)