Johnson’s Body and Mind

Ala Alryyes
Yale University

In “In Johnson’s Bear Hug,” a witty 1971 review of several books on Samuel Johnson, John Wain points out that when it comes to Johnson, admirers fix on either “Johnson the man or Johnson the writer.”[1]   The two books reviewed in this essay likewise privilege one or the other of these two poles.

Helen Deutsch’s Loving Dr. Johnson (Chicago, 2005) is less about reading Johnson and more about reading the readers of Johnson, including herself.   The author explains that the book’s style, “her turn to the personal voice,” reflects her outsider position “as a woman attempting to participate in and to understand a largely all-male form of author love so passionately institutionalized as the proper form of literary authority that its roots in the subjective (as a form of love and thus of personal inclination or choice) and in the corporeal (as the preservation of a singularly eccentric authorial body) have been all but forgotten” (7).   This quotation from the book’s somewhat under-structured Introduction is a good précis of Deutsch’s complex study, alluding to a set of keywords that underpin her monograph–anecdote, love, death, body, and afterlife–terms, she asserts, that have been ignored by Johnsonians’ exclusive emphasis on his disembodied mind and text-centered literary reputation.   Wain asks, “Was there in Dr. Johnson’s conversation and his physical presence, even his oddities, some precious essence that is not in [his] writings?”   Deutsch’s book argues for such a crucial and unusual nexus between Johnson’s body and his critical legacy.

In several anecdotes regarding her own study of Johnson and, importantly, interactions with several male Johnsonian teachers, Deutsch brings to life her book’s personal nature.   But she also makes the intimate rigorous by paying careful attention to recent theorizations of the anecdote form, most notably by Jane Gallop and the late Joel Fineman.   Fineman’s striking words–that the anecdote “as the narration of a singular event, is the literary form or genre that uniquely refers to the real”–haunt Deutsch’s book.[2]   “Anecdotal theory,” Gallop elaborates, attempts “to bring the unpredictability and responsiveness of the flesh into writing.”[3]   In an important sense, “anecdote” is the literary figure that structures this monograph, for it is the ability of this form to relate the literary to the historical that, in Deutsch’s tale, spotlights how closely Johnson’s body and wisdom became intertwined.

By closely analyzing several anecdotes–his anatomist’s narrative of Johnson’s autopsy and several accounts of Johnson’s last moments–Deutsch impressively brings to (critical) life the diseased and dead body of one of the eighteenth century’s most influential critical minds and claims that the love that Johnson inspired in generations of his readers, professional and amateur alike, cannot be abstracted from the great man’s body.   His fans’ love is not, then, an admiration of a unique “mind” but “a desire that has possessed many readers of Johnson to know the author himself.”   What are the limits of such love’s knowledge, and how does it relate to the beloved’s death?   Deutsch’s provocative argument is that indeed just as Johnson’s own difficult death calls attention to the ambiguity of his religious faith, his death also highlights the special character of his fans’ “author love.”   Analyzing Johnson’s autopsy as a form of romance that “recuperates, reunifies, and reanimates dissection’s violent reduction of the body to its parts” and thus “reanimates the dead,” Deutsch claims that “around the figure of Johnson’s corpse, surgeons and artists unite in the need to delineate and display an uncommon individual and to anchor his origins in the flesh” (51).   Whether it is Walter Jackson Bate performing Johnson or James Boswell immortalizing his gestures, Johnsonians then and now have sought to incarnate the presence of Johnson, creating an “embodied afterlife” which must disavow his death.

Did Johnson control his body; does his famously ravaged frame figure in his oeuvre?   Deutsch has argued in an earlier book that Alexander Pope artistically exploits his own deformed body to reflect on his identity and poetic originality.[4]   I am less convinced by her close reading in this book of The Vanity of Human Wishes as a poem whose whirlwind exposure of the futility of human ambitions echoes “the perpetual motions of Johnson’s tics.”   While it is intriguing to think of “tic” as a “locus classicus for the mind/body link,” a “structural homology that links Johnson’s poetic style to his nervous tics” (79) remains unproven, despite the fact that Johnson “scrutinized” the body of Pope in his Life of Pope and that Pope might have loomed large in Johnson’s choice of the couplet form for The Vanity.   The Vanity is, first and foremost, an imitation poem, and Juvenal’s tenth satire is a whirlwind indeed.   By contrast, Deutsch substantiates her case that contemporaries of Johnson discerned, often pejoratively, his bodily defects in his distinctive style, and brilliantly points out that Johnson’s singular oddities sit uneasily with “the universal wisdom and imitable expression of his words.”   She, furthermore, troubles the notion of Johnson’s free will, noting that “Johnson’s movements jeopardized the limits between body and mind, and between intention and its lack” (91).

How is the Great Man remembered?   In her last two chapters, Deutsch ruminates on how those left behind–whether Boswell, or later popular admirers–memorialized Johnson.   His ghost, she beautifully reflects, “haunts us in the flesh.”   Remarkably, and in contrast to such disembodied fathers as Shakespeare and Milton, the character of Johnson “seems to gain universality the more particularly and locally embodied it remains” (121).   Whether in John Bacon’s and Joshua Reynolds’s visual monuments or in Boswell’s, Hester Thrale’s, and Thomas Macaulay’s verbal elegies, his memorialists invoke his presence by seeking to have his (odd, diseased, uncontrollable) body invoke his genius and interior depth.   Yet such figurations remain ambivalent: an involuntary gesture captured in his 1769 Reynolds portrait renders “that body meaningful, subjecting it to unending interpretation” (112).

Howard D. Weinbrot’s Aspects of Samuel Johnson: Essays on His Arts, Mind, Afterlife, and Politics (Delaware, 2005) brings together sixteen of his essays (fourteen of which have been published before), spanning a wide range of Johnson’s writings and organized into four sections: “Arts,” “Mind,” “Afterlife,” and “Johnson and Politics.”   An essay on “Johnson’s Plan and Preface to the Dictionary ” examines the change in Johnson’s reflections on his great project, from the Plan ‘s obsequious flattery of Lord Chesterfield (Johnson figures himself as “one of the soldiers of Caesar” [36]) to the Preface’s “mature and weary” rejection of patronage.   In another essay on Johnson’s “illustrative quotations” in the Dictionary, Weinbrot argues that when Johnson invokes “Latitudinarian churchmen like [John] Tillotson, he . . . modifies quotations so that they embody received and broadly acceptable Christian commonplaces” (66).   Though Johnson avers that he “does not form, but registers the language,” this essay examines the case for a “presciptivist” Johnson.[5]   Weinbrot’s focus on Johnson’s illustrative quotations, however, highlights this underexplored treasure trove of eighteenth-century linguistic scholarship.

“The Poetry of Samuel Johnson” evidences Weinbrot’s familiarity with Johnson’s poetic corpus.   Contemporaneous assessments of Johnson’s poetry not withstanding, Weinbrot seeks to make the case that if Johnson is acknowledged as a great prose writer, it is “in part because he is a great poet.”   He discusses some of Johnson’s epitaphs; his Latin poem, subtitled”Post Lexicon Anglicanum Auctum et Emendatum” (“After Enlarging and Correcting the English Dictionary”) but more familiarly known by its Greek title, which translates as “Know Thyself”; London; and The Vanity of the Human Wishes.  Whereas the “Epitaph on Claudy Phillips, a Musician” offers Phillips a certain end (“Sleep undisturb’d, within this peaceful shrine/Till Angels wake thee, with a note like thine”), The Vanity ends with a series of questions, and the more personal “Know Thyself”–in which Johnson meditates on his depression following the completion of the Dictionary–ends with even less certainty, its final questions left unanswered.

In this same essay, Weinbrot also turns to some of Johnson’s prologues, focusing on his “Prologue Spoken by Mr. Garrick at the Opening of the Theatre in Drury-Lane, 1747.”   Here Johnson remarkably surveys the range of “English drama from the late sixteenth to the mid-Eighteenth century,” describing strength and frailty in “metaphors of warfare,” and “harmonizing theories of causation, chronological movement, narrative elegance, [and] audience response.”   Although Weinbrot suggestively notes that Johnson “knows that the local stage suggests the world beyond its borders” (78), the world of Weinbrot’s book is limited to Britain and Europe–a discussion of Johnson’s Irene, for instance, might have conjured up a global Johnson.   He finally analyzes both London and The Vanity, but most of his readings here are rather undertheorized.   By contrast, a separate essay in this collection on The Vanity, “No Mock Debate: Questions and Answers in The Vanity of the Human Wishes,” performs a more rigorous analysis of Johnson’s great poem by highlighting the way that Johnson consciously uses graduated questions to lead his readers, a technique that Johnson alludes to in his Preface to Dodsley’s Preceptor.  “The Poetry of Samuel Johnson” should have been edited for the collection to eliminate repetition and overlap with “No Mock Debate” (there are several other instances of repetition because of overlapping essays elsewhere in this book).   Johnson’s pedagogical relation to the reader is extended to the relation of narrator to character in “Johnson and the Arts of Narration,” which highlights the convention of the narrator as a “benevolent” guide and features illuminating analyses of The Life of Savage, The Vanity of the Human Wishes, and Rasselas, the latter focusing on the various functions of the interpolated tales.

Several articles in the collection consider the influence of other linguistic traditions on Johnson’s style and criticism.   “Johnson and the Domestic Metaphor” defends Johnson’s diction, rejecting the view that his Latinate style encodes his Tory conservatism.   Johnson privileges ordinary life and, therefore, is no cultural snob.   Weinbrot stresses the pervasiveness of Johnson’s “domestic metaphors,” which highlight basic human wants, use the modest to suggest the grand, and intertwine the home and the nation (e.g. in the Rambler, No. 161: “a single house will show what is done or suffered in the world” [149]).   He also offers the alternative hypothesis that it is the Hebrew Bible that inflects some of Johnson’s (less orotund) language and many of his “homely metaphors.”

In “Johnson and Genre,” Weinbrot seeks to complicate W. R. Keast’s influential view of Johnson as a critic “forsaking the view of art as manifesting itself in distinct species.”[6]   Rather, Johnson used genre–“he analyzed several literary kinds consistent with generic distinctions: the new genre of the novel, the older genres of pastoral and epic, biography, tragicomedy, and the epistle among other forms”–although “his sense of genre was more elastic than that of the French formalists” (195).   Much of the conviction that Johnson did not believe in generic distinctions comes no doubt from his defense of Shakespeare’s natural style.   Yet Weinbrot incisively both points out that Johnson’s “capsule analyses of [Shakespeare’s] plays often acknowledge their genre, variations within genres, and the plays’ sense of literary order, including adherence to the three unities” (202), and links Johnson’s favoring of “nature” over “art” to the extra-literary matter of national honor.   Johnson famously quarreled with Voltaire because the French intellectual criticized Shakespeare for not having observed decorum and the rules of tragedy.   Indeed, Weinbrot could have mentioned in his essay on Johnson’s language that Johnson saw French (not its mother source, ” Gallick structure and phraseology”) as possibly corrupting the English language and urged the English to avoid coming to “babble a dialect of France,” mainly by taking the “diction of common life” from Shakespeare.[7]

The book’s third section, “Afterlife,” begins with an essay on the minor man of letters Percival Stockdale, who accused Johnson of snatching his commission to write the Lives of the Poets–and whose megalomania seems to have offended many of his contemporaries.   “Johnson before Boswell in Eighteenth-Century France” amusingly begins with a comparison of Johnson to British cuisine.   But Weinbrot convincingly makes the case for investigating Johnson’s reputation in “continental Europe’s most powerful arbiter of taste” (271).

It should by now be evident that it is not easy to place Deutsch’s and Weinbrot’s very different books into a conversation.   One might point out that they suffer almost opposite weaknesses, for whereas Deutsch’s monograph has too sharp a focus, Weinbrot’s collection lacks an overarching argument.   Yet the two studies occasionally converge.   In his essay on Johnson in France mentioned above, Weinbrot insightfully notes that Johnson’s reputation in the Anglophone world is inseparable from Boswell’s praise, and wonders, “What would happen if another culture knew Johnson only as a man of letters, if it knew neither his golden speech nor his tarnished body?” (271).   This fascinating question connects his investigation here to Deutsch’s focus.   Further, both books are personal, though perhaps in different ways: indeed Weinbrot’s occasional hagiographic tone is further evidence of what Deutsch calls the “author love” that Johnson inspires.

If it is a kind of literary wisdom–not only wit or inventiveness–that inspires this love, then, more than anything else, it is Johnson’s death that undercuts an easy separation between man and writer.   Did Johnson die well, or was he an anti-Socrates? Regarding Johnson’s end, our two authors radically differ.   Indeed if Johnson is the subject of both books, Deutsch’s Johnson begins, so to speak, with his death and Weinbrot’s ends with it.   In “Johnson, Skepticism, the But Clause, and the Dialectical Imperative,” Weinbrot attacks what he sees as revisionist views of Johnson as a Humean skeptic and states that “Johnson was hostile to skepticism because skepticism seemed hostile to happiness . . . [and] a danger to spiritual comfort” (219).   He defends Johnson from this charge by highlighting his religious faith.   Facing death, Weinbrot argues, there is no place for “hope” without such certitude.   Johnson “thus accepts religious certainty” (217).   This is a non sequitur.   Johnson told Boswell that “every man who attacks my belief, diminishes in some degree my belief in it.”[8]   While his discussion of various instances of Johnson’s complex parries against skeptical arguments is remarkably rich, Weinbrot cannot justify elevating hope to certainty.   Deutsch, on the other hand, does not credit Johnson’s orthodox words but looks for hidden utterances and death-moment actions that trouble this religious certitude.   She cites an anecdote in which Johnson was said to “have his own approaching end constantly before his eyes . . . the prospect of death, he declared, was terrible” (121).   Does Johnson’s fear of death, then, point to doubt about the afterlife?   No matter.   Johnson may have been the master of the conclusive summation, but it is his vulnerable body and the emotional unease of his words that have created intimate affinity with his readers.


[1]   John Wain, “In Johnson’s Bear Hug,” The New York Review of Books 17 no. 2, Aug. 12, 1971.

[2]   Joel Fineman, “The History of the Anecdote: Fiction and Fiction,” The New Historicism, ed. H. Aram Vesser (New York, 1989), 56; qtd. in Helen Deutsch, Loving Dr. Johnson (Chicago, 2005), 64.

[3]   Jane Gallop, Anecdotal Theory (Durham, 2002), 164;. qtd. in Deutsch, Loving Dr. Johnson, 174.

[4]   Deutsch, Resemblance and Disgrace: Alexander Pope and the Deformation of Culture (Cambridge, 1996).

[5]   Jack Lynch and Anne McDermott, eds., Anniversary Essays on Johnson’s Dictionary (Cambridge, 2005), 42, 92, 113.

[6]   W. R. Keast, “The Theoretical Foundations of Johnson’s Criticism,” Critics and Criticism Ancient and Modern, ed. R. S. Crane (Chicago, 1952).

[7]   Samuel Johnson, Preface to A Dictionary of the English Language, in Johnson on the English Language, The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson, Vol. XVIII, ed. Gwin J. Kolb and Robert DeMaria, Jr. (New Haven, 2005), 95-96.

[8]   James Boswell, [letter dated April 1776], The Life of Johnson, Together with Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides and Johnson’s Diary of a Journey into North Wales, ed. G. B. Hill, 3:10; qtd. in Fred Parker, Scepticism and Literature: An Essay on Pope, Hume, Sterne, and Johnson (Oxford, 2003), 22.