Johnson, Macpherson, and Literary Truths

Tom Jones
University of St. Andrews

That a Scotsman has to be a very sturdy moralist indeed to love truth more than his country and that Highlanders, knowing others’ ignorance in their language and antiquities, are prone to impose upon them are maxims familiar to readers of Samuel Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775). They are particularly familiar to those interested in James Macpherson’s Ossianic poems and the considerations of ancient British history and cultural transmission that Johnson engages in whilst touring Scotland. Thomas M. Curley’s contention in Samuel Johnson, The Ossian Fraud, and the Celtic Revival in Great Britain and Ireland (Cambridge, 2009), is that Johnson was the most important and insightful critic of the fraud Macpherson committed. Johnson’s outrage was moral rather than prejudiced and stemmed from the importance of historical truth to an accurate assessment of the current state and future prospects of the various peoples that constituted Britain and Ireland. He objected to Ossian primarily because he was a lover of knowledge and sponsor of the study of Celtic antiquities. The end point of the book is an account of Johnson’s contribution to a reply William Shaw wrote to criticisms of his An Enquiry into the Authenticity of the Poems ascribed to Ossian, a contribution that students of Johnson from James Boswell to John David Fleeman have noted, but which is given its fullest treatment here. Curley has produced a close account of these matters, the details of which are unlikely to be substantially disputed. However, the lack of contextualization of the state of Celtic studies before Johnson and of a more analytical discussion of the concept of truth in relation to literary production are omissions that encourage the reader to question some of Curley’s judgments and evaluations.

Curley’s first priority is to establish as completely as possible the fraudulence of Macpherson’s literary project, and on the same grounds that Johnson objected to it (there being no such manuscripts as those Macpherson claimed to be working from; that oral composition of refined poetry is impossible; that oral transmission of large works is impossible). Curley is admirably succinct here: “Twenty-eight out of his thirty-nine titles—72 percent of all the individual works comprising Ossian—have no apparent antecedents in genuine Gaelic literature and are therefore entirely his own handiwork. The remaining eleven pieces, or 28 percent of the titles, have but generally loose ties to approximately sixteen Gaelic ballads. … Contrary to his claims, Macpherson was no editor or translator of ancient poetry” (23). Lies are obnoxious, but why did Johnson object so strongly to Macpherson’s lies? The successful imposition upon his audience of the interrelated falsehoods of the Ossianic poems—that the published texts were literal translations, based on manuscripts and transcriptions of oral performances, of poems attributable to a single author from the third century A.D.—amounts to a serious falsification of the entire Britannic and Irish historical record. Promoting the untruth that Irish Gaelic is comprehensible to a Scottish Gaelic speaker, but not the reverse, and calling it “a proof, that the Scotch Galic is the most original, and consequently, the language of a more antient and unmixed people,”[1] is seeking to justify with spurious historical claims a perceived national superiority. The consequences of such an act are far from trivial: “Circulating spurious antiquities like the Ossian canon, with its bogus imitations, invented Gaelic translations and pseudo-antiquarian vindications, obviously distorted historical truth and compromised the lessons to be learned from human history” (229). If the relations between England and other states, whether subject nations, colonies, or partners in a union, are pressing political questions, then the historical bases of the relations between those states, ethnically, politically, and economically, are also pressing. Johnson’s objections to Macpherson are an aspect of his commitment to antiquarian and linguistic research aimed at providing a full account of human improvement and the practical conditions most favorable to it. Curley endorses Johnson’s position but is able also to see his shortcomings, as when Johnson “wrongly supposed that Macpherson’s pretense to a faithful adherence to authentic sources meant his depending on manuscripts solely. That mistake played into Johnson’s more egregious error of discounting both oral tradition and a venerable body of surviving written documents, older than a hundred years, conserving a rich literary heritage in Gaelic (38).” Curley is an advocate of the careful scrutiny of the historical bases of ethnicity and national literature, rather than a critic of nationalist essentialism (10–11), and enlists Johnson in his cause.

Any sense of Johnson’s shortcomings as a critic of Macpherson and a supporter of antiquarian and linguistic research is, however, only presented here as shading in a representation of his role as the chief British patron of Celtic studies in the eighteenth century. This position is related to Johnson’s moral character: Johnson was a friend of progressive nationalism because he was instinctively a friend to all repressed people. Johnson, then, supported efforts to expose the falsehood of the Ossianic texts and to propose more truthful accounts of Celtic languages, literatures, and history. Curley thinks that Johnson’s “actions on behalf of Scottish Gaelic [his promotion of a Gaelic Bible, his support for Shaw’s Gaelic grammar] were far more strenuous and salutary than any other linguistic initiative [of his], except for his groundbreaking labors on behalf of the English language” (98). Johnson’s collaboration with Thomas Percy on the Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765) is noted, as is Johnson and Percy’s encouragement to Evan Evans in his production of a collection of early Welsh poetry to rival Ossian (Some Specimens of the Poetry of the Antient Welsh Bards, 1764) (7–8). More emphatically, Johnson is said to have been the “intellectual midwife at the birth of the Celtic Revival in Ireland” (124). This last claim is strong, and emerges from a description of Johnson as the only Englishman of note to write for Catholic emancipation in Ireland, even if he did not respond to the invitation of Charles O’Connor, an Irish antiquarian whose work he encouraged, to produce pamphlets against the penal laws (141). Co-membership of The Club with Lord Charlemont, who became the first president of the Royal Irish Academy (170), and support for Thomas Campbell, a topographical antiquary (172–79), are also cited in this connection. Curley traces the interrelated aims of this group of researchers with clarity and persuasiveness, picking out snatches in Johnson’s correspondence, and reports of his verbal approval and encouragement, to demonstrate a real and sustained effort on behalf of Celtic studies, galvanized by opposition to Ossian.

Such an emphasis is in danger of eliding the presence of other interesting and important figures. Thomas Gray, whose poem “The Bard” was published in 1757 and was referred to by William Mason as his “Welch Ode,” had also seen the manuscript of Evans’s Specimens, supposedly for correction, and was also involved in imitating some of Evans’s fragments.[2] In Ireland, Narcissus Marsh was an English Protestant who became provost of Trinity College, where he sought “the translation of the Old Testament into Irish, to provide for the teaching of Irish to native students in the university and to arrange for preaching in Irish in the university chapel.”[3] William Petty and Robert Boyle are also known to have been interested in the project for an Irish Bible, and whilst Boyle was less keen on the lectureship in Irish, he corresponded with Marsh and supported his plans to produce an Irish grammar.[4] The Dublin Philosophical Society, founded in 1683, “concentrated most of its efforts in the humanities into the study of Irish antiquities. … Thomas Molyneux, who, through his friendship with Roderic O’Flaherty and the Welsh scholar Edward Lhuyd, laid the foundations for an organized scientific interest in Ireland’s more distant past.”[5] Johnson’s efforts are made all the more substantial for appearing without any sketch of this background of comparable scholarly activity, patronage, and general intellectual interest.

When such a strong emphasis is placed on truth in a book as it is in Curley’s, a reader can become hypersensitive. Johnson is said to be particularly close to the truth. He is “the supreme truth-teller in English literature” (122). His achievement “was inextricably tied to truth-telling, whether patriotically focused on the cultural history of his homeland or morally centered on the universal experience of the human race” (81). The complex relationship between these two kinds of truth, and others, is never explicitly analyzed by Curley. He reports Johnson’s views in Rambler No. 151 that the “charms of falsehood” in representations wane, such that “from the imitations of truth, which are never perfect, [we] transfer our affection to truth itself,” and then points out that Ossian must be a double falsehood, as it “not only indulged in sustained fantasy but was also false in its essential make-up” (47). This relationship remains complex and synthetic in the closing assertion that “Johnson believed that art must imitate truth to be worthwhile” (230). To suggest that there are kinds of truth, and that they might not be as closely related as Curley, and perhaps even Johnson, think, is not simply to give in to the inauthentic and false. There are falsehoods of attestation of which it seems certain Macpherson was guilty: he claimed something that was not the case. But in the case of attempting to imitate nature (and Imlac shows just how difficult a task this is[6]) one might ask if a speaker can be culpable. Representations involve choices of means, media, and methods. If someone makes such choices badly, is he to be judged culpable, a liar, a teller of untruths? Or is the failure of a different kind? Again, if art must imitate the true in order to be worthwhile, who is it that makes imitations of things they believe to be untrue? A poet might be wrong in thinking women’s behavior characteristically changeful, for example, but does that mean he has lied if he writes a poem in which women adopt a series of changeful postures? Producing truths of imitation is not like attesting to a truth.

Curley’s emphasis on authenticity, however, suggests that the two kinds of truth-telling are related. He remarks that although “authenticity and aesthetic value are not necessarily inseparable, they usually were decidedly so to Johnson’s way of thinking” (47), and the Ossianic poems are presented as one case in which truth and aesthetic value cannot be separated. Curley is keen to point out the difference between his approach and that of other scholars, such as Nick Groom, who have tried to suggest that literary forgery is imaginatively true at the same time as being inauthentic or false.[7] Johnson would never have condoned such a move: “Because art acquired its dignity and purpose from an honest and instructive mirroring of human life, literature would suffer ultimate degradation from a failure to distinguish between truth and falsehood in fiction, between true making based on the actual world and a false making-up of deliberate deception and empty fantasy (16).” There is, then, no sound judgment without a verdict on authenticity. But authenticity as a category bearing on art production in general is complex. Beyond the case of the fabricated and back-formulated originals of translations, what is it to have an inauthentic relationship to the reality one imitates? Curley suggests that a work is inauthentic if it imitates a world of deception and fantasy, but how do we know that other people are being fantastical about the world they have chosen to imitate or the manner in which they imitate it? There are no clear criteria for knowing if and to what degree a work is an inauthentic imitation of reality. Curley’s focus on Johnson’s allegiance with the truth, then, concentrates his close historical work on an intriguing question. More subtle and perhaps more generous results might have followed from a view that recognized different kinds of truth.

Curley’s judgments are finely justified by the weight of his patiently accumulated evidence, his attention to letters and other documents that are not frequently cited, and his cross-examination of texts and their sources and variants. Where there are apparent similarities between the dubious activities of Macpherson and those engaged in by Johnson, either the emendations in Percy’s texts endorsed by Johnson (71–72), Johnson’s early fraud in the Parliamentary Debates (51), or his writing proposals for a writer who then published them as the preface to a fraudulent text (William Lauder’s Essay on Milton’s Use and Imitation of the Moderns in his Paradise Lost) (53–55), Curley is careful to make fine discriminations. And when he himself conjectures the existence of a manuscript letter from Macpherson to Johnson on the basis of what he already knows of the relationship between the two men and their respective characters (112–14), he is conjecturing honestly from real scholarly knowledge of his subject, and not from a factitious or deliberately misleading point of view. But nonetheless, a reader is reminded of the slightness of the divide between the true and the false in certain cases, and this proximity can make some judgments appear heavy-handed. Curley is perhaps a little hard on Adam Ferguson, who had orchestrated the meeting between Macpherson and John Home that led to the first Ossianic poems. Curley carefully reconstructs the narrative of a controversy stirred up by Shaw in his Enquiry, noting that Ferguson sent a note to John Douglas for publication in London newspapers. Ferguson was attempting to defend himself from Shaw’s relation of Percy’s suspicions about the recital of Gaelic poetry organized by Hugh Blair and Ferguson for Percy in Edinburgh in 1765. Ferguson included a covering letter: “An excerpt of Ferguson’s little-known cover letter for this note made clear that his fidelity to Ossian was as stubborn as ever, despite mounting evidence of imposture. He promised to remain an incorrigible enthusiast, no matter if it turned out to be a hoax: ‘The [bogus Gaelic] Specimens I had seen apart from the Curiosity of them are very interesting efforts of the Imagination & the Heart equal to any Poetry I know, & whether genuine or Spurious I shall never be ashamed of having mistaken them for originals’” (215–16, Curley’s insertion in square brackets). It does not seem to me that this note indicates stubborn fidelity or incorrigible enthusiasm, but an acknowledgment that the poems may be spurious and an open declaration of having found them literarily interesting regardless of their authenticity. Ferguson intends not to be ashamed of his mistake, and, unless one suggests that someone is merely claiming to be mistaken in order to deceive others, there is no shame in owning a mistake.

Curley’s language is constantly and redundantly evaluative: there can be no doubt that he sides with Johnson from the nature of his argument, and so the evaluating terms (such as the interjected “bogus” above) cannot be meant to provide that kind of clarification; they therefore contribute only to a sweep or tendency, distinct from any factual judgment. What is perhaps Curley’s least happy evaluative remark occurs in a comparison of the prose styles of Shaw and Johnson: “If [Shaw’s] bluff, combative style can be compared to a blunt dagger hacking away at antagonists, then Johnson’s prose might be likened to a well-tempered, two-fisted ceremonial broadsword, sweeping through Scottish opposition with a controlled energy, precision, and epic majesty harmonizing the jarring complexities of literary debate” (221). The comparison of literary dispute and combat is rarely something to relish. It is particularly hard to accept here, where Johnson has been identified as a critic of the cruel English treatment of Highland Scotland after 1745, and also a critic of sentimentalized bogus narratives about a warrior past. There is little truth in the comparison, even if its relative evaluation is correct. Whilst this book is full of useful truths of attestation and documentation, at moments such as this its determination in pursuing a certain version of the truth calls into question the validity of those truths of “universal experience of the human race” with which Curley associates Johnson.


[1]  James Macpherson, The Poems of Ossian and Related Works, ed. Howard Gaskill, intro. Fiona Stafford (Edinburgh, 1996), 217.

[2]  Letter 209, William Mason to Thomas Gray, 26 November 1755, in The Correspondence of Thomas Gray, ed. Paget Toynbee and Leonard Whibley, 3 vols. (Oxford, 1971), I:445, and Appendix M. See also Edward D. Snyder, “Thomas Gray’s Interest in Celtic,” Modern Philology 9 (1914): 559–79.

[3]  See Thomas O’Connor, “Marsh’s Library and the Catholic Tradition,” in The Making of Marsh’s Library: Learning, Politics and Religion in Ireland, 1650–1750, ed. Muriel McCarthy and Ann Simmons (Dublin, 2004), 235–55, esp. 235.

[4]  See Michael Hunter, “Robert Boyle, Narcissus Marsh and the Anglo-Irish Intellectual Scene in the Late Seventeenth Century,” in The Making of Marsh’s Library, 51–75, esp. 61 and 66–68.

[5]  K. Theodore Hoppen, The Common Scientist in the Seventeenth Century: A Study of the Dublin Philosophical Society, 1683–1708 (London, 1970), 155–56.

[6]  See Samuel Johnson, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia (London, 1759).

[7]  See Nick Groom, The Forger’s Shadow: How Forgery Changed the Course of Literature (London, 2002).