Friday, November 17, 2006

What Makes Doctor Johnson Great?

"A friend of mine, Russian by birth but English by adoption, who speaks English more elegantly and eloquently than most native speakers, once asked me of what, precisely, the greatness of Doctor Johnson consisted. He was asking only for information, in a spirit of inquiry; but the question took me aback, because the greatness of Doctor Johnson was something that I took for granted. If my friend had asked me to name a man whose greatness was his most salient characteristic, I think I would have named Doctor Johnson without a second thought.

“But,” my friend continued, “Doctor Johnson was a writer, and the greatness of writers is in their writing. Who reads him now, or feels the need to do so?” He added that he had never read him but still considered himself well-read in English literature.

Johnson’s quality of unreadness is not new and is equaled only by that of Walter Scott, whose once-famous historical romances are now read, I suspect, only rarely, and with a sinking heart and a sense of duty—even though Ivanhoe is allegedly Prime Minister Blair’s favorite reading. Carlyle, in his essay on Boswell’s Life of Johnson, says that the Life far exceeds in value anything Johnson wrote: “[A]lready, indeed,” says Carlyle, “[Johnson’s works] are becoming obsolete in this generation; and for some future generations may be valuable chiefly as Prolegomena and expository Scholia to this Johnsoniad of Boswell.” This was written in 1832, less than half a century after Johnson’s death, and as literary prophecy was not far from the mark. Boswell has many more readers than Johnson, and probably has had ever since Carlyle passed judgment..."