Samuel Johnson, by John Wain

Samuel JohnsonSamuel Johnson by John Wain

I did not seek John Wain’s biography, not knowing it existed. It was fortuity, by way of my father-in-law. John Wain was indeed a curious man; he wrote an essay on the Inklings which is tremendously misleading, quite deadpan. I had read it and have though John Wain someone I would like to know more about ever since. Wain was the kind of person who gladly perused the Dictionary, discerning character in the choices there displayed. He wrote well, and had wit and insight—was, in short, quite competent to do Johnson. It is an excellent biography.

I have myself read a bit of Samuel Johnson, though it seems incidental, looking back on it. Rasselas before anything else, the Lives, the occasional poem, never the Rambler. Then I did Boswell’s Life and Journal. Hence, mainly, my interest, and some also from remarks made by C.S. Lewis and Jorge Luis Borges (who read Boswell’s Life six times over). I have gathered that Johnson was the kind of person who represented his age, and so knew that to begin to understand him was to begin to understand more than him.

Unlike Samuel Johnson, John Wain was not a Christian. His sympathy for the pious Johnson, however, went deep. When a biography ends with a moving sense of the sadness of the subject’s death, of shutting down a house in which you have been happy, window by window, room by room, and finally locking the front door, you know that you have something written with the proper admiration of a good biography on a worthwhile person. I have a lot of biographies to get through and fear few of them will be so interesting and end so aptly; I am grateful for this one. For all his differences, Wain respected and understood Johnson.

This is an example of what Wain does: he not only makes an observation about Johnson, but puts the observation into perspective. “Another of the things about Johnson ‘everybody knows’ is that he never read a book all the way through; he leafed through it, snatching at the gist, ‘tearing the heart’ out of it. Readers without Johnson’s incredible powers of concentration should be warned that this method will not serve them as it served him.” Wain makes sense of it, rather than just gushing about the great miraculous feats of Johnson, and he uses this insight throughout to explain what exactly Johnson achieved. The observation is his key to understanding the Lexicon years.

“In this we see something of Johnson’s generous self-forgetfulness, his power to reach intellectual conclusions on impersonal grounds.” Reader, is that not a good way of putting something like that? Notice the complete absence of the more common, blunt and inadequate way of putting it: he was objective (nefarious, substandard word). John Wain’s prose is consistently superior. It refreshes any who has to spend long waste hours reading prose that only occasionally rises to adequacy and the wit of which is entirely recycled and worn. John Wain is a joy.

After years of misfortune, dropping out of college for lack of funds which were promised but never delivered, after inability to find proper employment, at least three teaching failures, poverty and then the Dictionary years of toil, after the decline and neglect of his wife, and her death, after all this Johnson received a royal pension that solved his protracted financial difficulties. He went on a holiday, and this is Wain’s comment: “We know very little, in detail, about these six weeks, but they must have been one of the few spells of unclouded happiness in Johnson’s life. To be free at last from the years of drudgery; to feel his freedom had been fairly earned, that it came from fame he had merited and a character he had kept unspotted; to ramble in one of the most delectable regions of the country that was beautiful as no part of the earth is beautiful now; and to have beside him a loving an unalterable friend—life does not often make up such a bouquet.” Quite right, and I find that observation about the ugliness of the world after industrialization, unobtrusively included, one of the many interesting things Wain accomplishes.

Early on in the book Wain drops ominous hints about Boswell. One gets the idea he is going to unmask Boswell as the great distorter of Johnson, the inept traducer. Nothing good can be said about Boswell before he enters the story in the sequence of events, and then comes the moment at which he actually does. The depth of Wain’s low opinion of Boswell is manifested. “Boswell’s thirst for self-observation was matched by his need to measure himself against others. He was, in that sense, a natural parasite, living form one intense relationship to the next and always drawing a great deal of energy from the host. His doglike hero-worship and his equally doglike sexual promiscuity were opposite sides of the same coin. Whether he was coupling his mind with that of some man of unquestioned achievement, or coupling his body with that of some attractive girl, he felt a relief from the intolerable burden of the unmitigated self, and in this sense his whole life was one long act of copulation.” There is a prepared, calculated and utterly scathing opinion. Wain has had it on his chest for more than half the book. Delivering himself proves quite cathartic, and his comments on Boswell subsequently improve; he eventually even brings himself to praise more than once and includes a sensitive account of the last parting between Johnson and Boswell. In the end ending there are quite respectable commendations of several of Boswell’s acts and decisions. It is the funniest thing.

Whatever else the peculiar John Wain was, he was humane, and that makes his biography warm. “In a man of such tender-heartedness, faithfulness to old friends and old associations was to be expected. Johnson never let go of a friend.” Wain can do tenderness and he can do shrewdness, as follows: “There is a deeper form of cant, the habitual use of misleading language which arises partly from a wish to deceive others and partly from a need to deceive ourselves. In this sense cant is always with us, and the more so as we allow propaganda and advertising a larger share in our lives.” He gives contemporary (1974) examples, the second of which is the use of the word ‘gay’ instead of ‘homosexual’.

One of the best things about this biography is that while distancing himself from Johnson’s Christianity, Wain still appreciated it. He quoted a prayer Johnson made at the side of a dying friend of his mother, after which one reads the observation above about tender-heartedness. Johnson apparently wrote many such prayers, and Wain includes this one whole: “Almighty and most merciful Father, whose loving kindness is over all thy works, behold, visit, and relieve this thy servant who is grieved with sickness. Grant that the sense of her weakness may add strength to her faith, and seriousness to her repentance. And grant that by the help of thy Holy Spirit, after the pains and labors of this short life, we may all obtain everlasting happiness through Jesus Christ, our Lord, for whose sake hear our prayers. Amen.” It was a spontaneous collect later recalled and transcribed that shows the religion of Samuel Johnson (and his ability to employ precise, choice expression). Wain was never dismissive about Johnson’s beliefs; he knew they belonged to a serious man.

From what I can tell, there was a lot of natural religion in Johnson’s conception; he was something of a moralist and feared he had not sufficiently exerted himself to satisfy God. He did not conceal his dread of dying, and Wain shows it was dread of the judgment. Johnson very much believed in a real and unending hell. He was never sure he would himself escape it. “Among the deeply rooted fears that preyed on Johnson’s mind when his thoughts turned to his religion, one of the most persistent was that he would not be able render sufficient account of the gifts he had been born with.” It is not my intention to determine the state of Samuel Johnson’s soul; may he rest in peace. But I do wonder if Wain is sensitive to Johnson’s religion because he tended to judge doubtfully of his merit, rather than to rely on God’s grace. Legal rather than evangelical humiliation can be more widely appreciated since it is more generally experienced. As I have said before, the biography is moving, and these scenes from the end of Johnson’s life are told with sense, decorum and pathos.

Here is one last interesting observation from Wain, of Johnson’s fondness for travel. “He experienced this beauty through his skin and his bone structure, through fatigue, though exposure to wind and weather. Anyone who has only seen a landscape (e.g., through a car window) might as well have stayed at home and watched travel films. But to experience the hills as gradient, to be toiled up; to feel the coldness of the streams, the texture of the earth under one’s feet, the roughness or smoothness of the rocks, the direction of the wind, is to possess that landscape and in this sense Johnson possessed the Hebrides.” And I think in a similar way Wain has not been looking out of the window of his car, but possessed Johnson.

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