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The Integration of a Sage

ISSUE:  Spring 1945

Samuel Johnson, By Joseph Wood Krutch, Henry Holt and Company. $3.75.

The Club should have more members, since “we have travelled over one another’s minds,” drew from Dr. Johnson the positive assertion: “Sir, you have not travelled over my mind, I promise you.” That neither the members of that choice group nor the indefatigable Boswell had thoroughly explored that master mind is proved by this new biography of the eighteenth-century colossus. It was high time that such a book as Joseph Wood Krutch’s “Samuel Johnson” should be written. Since the publication of the Malahide Papers, “Thraliana,” letters, and other comparatively recent discoveries, Boswell’s classic work has needed much supplementing. Of course we knew, or thought we knew, Samuel Johnson “more completely than any man who has ever yet lived” (as Boswell promised)—his prejudices, common sense, and eccentricities; we were made to feel his loneliness, his congenital melancholy, his fear of death, and his fundamental skepticism despite his prayers and religious meditations. But these personal qualities and their literary exploitation for a hundred and fifty years have loomed so large in the popular mind that we have underestimated his merits as a thinker and particularly as a critic. His individual peculiarities have blinded us to the magnitude of his total achievement: we see many trees, as it were, but not the forest as a whole. Above all, a critical interpretation of Johnson’s works, based on a thorough examination of them in the light of contemporary opinion and background, has long been due.

In this new Life of Johnson Mr. Krutch has dwelt at length upon his critical acumen as shown, specifically, in his “Preface” to his edition of Shakespeare and his “Lives of the Poets” where his strong common sense and great learning generally enabled him to reach sound judgments in an age of neo-classic rigidity in literary criticism. His comments on Shakespeare, for instance, are often singularly penetrating and suggestive. One illustration must suffice: “He that peruses Shakespeare,” said he, “looks around alarmed, and starts to find himself alone.” In writing his “Lives of the Poets,” his last important labor, he hit upon a comparatively new style of biography by integrating the account of the poet’s life and the criticism of his works instead of regarding them as separate things. On the personal side Mr. Krutch has used the recently published “Thraliana,” supplementing the Thrale “Anecdotes,” to throw more light on Johnson’s relations with the Thrales and the Burneys at the rich brewer’s commodious villa, where the sage luxuriated and pontificated in congenial company. This essentially virile individual was all his life quite susceptible to feminine charm. He once declared that if he had no duties he would spend his life “in driving briskly in a postchaise with a pretty woman,” adding at once, “but she should be one who could understand me, and would add something to the conversation.” Mrs. Thrale and Fanny Burney measured up to these requirements.

Out of old and newly available material Mr. Krutch has built up a Johnson not fundamentally different from Bos-well’s man, but a figure better rounded and more versatile. Irritated one day by Boswell’s monotonous baitings, Johnson broke out with “Sir, you have but two topics, yourself and me. I am tired of both.” While Boswell revealed his hero largely by the quiz-and-answer method, his latest biographer portrays Johnson more in his relationship to his own day, inclusively, as reflecting the flavor and the spirit of that highly social, controversial, and formal eighteenth century. The picture of Johnson is accordingly well integrated and leaves the reader with the impression that here we have the whole man. This is not to disparage the Boswellian method, for without Boswell and his vivid reporting there would of course be no Johnson for us, but it is simply to say that a modern critic with a vast accumulation of Johnsoniana before him has done what no contemporary, however knowing and gifted, could have done. Krutch, supplementing Boswell, has elaborated and emphasized the significance of the Great Moralist without undue moralizing. The eighteenth-century pundit emerges from the pages not merely as the extraordinary talker whose tavern chair was “the throne of highest felicity,” but the many-sided genius who has become timeless as a humanist. Perhaps no other figure in English literature, except Shakespeare, more completely rewards the reader with wisdom fit for remembrance, or from whose sayings, mined from Boswell and other contemporary sources, there might be more profitably deduced a sane philosophy of life. Certainly no other philosopher or critic more aptly illustrates Johnson’s own dictum: “He that thinks reasonably must think morally.” If the sense that Johnson put into Boswell’s head, and not the wine, made it ache, the thought and research that his newest biographer put into his own head in preparing the work, with its elaborate indexes, might well give the reader a certain dizziness in sheer contemplation. The book is scholarly, thorough, and is enlivened with wit and touches of ironic humor. Lovers of Johnson (and of Boswell too, that indispensable midwife) will thank Mr. Krutch for his satisfying biography.


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