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Making the Wisdom Figure

From: Eighteenth-Century Studies
Volume 34, Number 3, Spring 2001
pp. 466-470 | 10.1353/ecs.2001.0030

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Eighteenth-Century Studies 34.3 (2001) 466-470

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Book Review

Making the Wisdom Figure

Kevin Hart. Samuel Johnson and the Culture of Property (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999). Pp. vi + 244. £35.00 cloth.

Lawrence Lipking. Samuel Johnson: The Life of an Author (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998). Pp. xii + 372. $36.95 cloth.

Adam Potkay. The Passion for Happiness: Samuel Johnson and David Hume (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000). Pp. xviii + 241. $42.50 cloth.

David F. Venturo. Johnson the Poet: The Poetic Career of Samuel Johnson (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1999). Pp. 335. $47.50 cloth.

Martin Wechselblatt. Bad Behavior: Samuel Johnson and Modern Cultural Authority (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 1998). Pp. 202. $42.50 cloth.

There are probably fewer bad books on Samuel Johnson than any other writer. His demanding style invigorates the minds and prose of those who read him well. This accumulated excellence should make it easier to write the next good book, it also makes it less necessary to do so, as so many good books are already in print. While one might assume that there is little more worth saying, yet five new books, three good, one fine, and one very good indeed, join impressively in a Johnsonian "emulation of intellectual elegance" (Lives, 2:146).

Despite the title of his book, Kevin Hart is much more successful in reasserting and exploring the connections between Johnson and Boswell and in assessing man and book as monuments than in developing an understanding of either property or culture. Property disappears into "appropriation" and "expropriation," while culture disappears into two flaccid "whatevers" (47). The chapter on "Cultural Properties" does mitigate the charges of forgery and fabrication against Macpherson by comparing him to Boswell: "the biographer steps into the background to allow the great man to complete his autobiography, the poet retreats in order to present himself the translator." One Scot writes "to let a lost Scottish society speak, and believes he can do so only by giving it a tone of epic grandeur"; the other one to give voice to an English monument. Hart is a thorough and reliable guide to familiar events such as the first meeting between Johnson and Boswell and Johnson's death, and to familiar topics such as Johnson's Jacobite sympathies and linguistic nationalism. When he says "[e]verywhere one looks in Johnson's writings one finds the notion of unlimited freedom treated roughly," one feels that he has looked everywhere (116). And when he says "[h]is aphorisms are knots of thinking and as often as not they are partly unraveled by the [Rambler] essays in which they occur" (19), one knows Johnson has found another good reader.

Hart has a good eye for the unfamiliar, too, unearthing the Bishop of Oxford's "Collect" from his Presidential Address, "Johnson--A Church of England Saint?" (Transactions of the Johnson Society, 1988; 66) and the 1943 shipment of 112 sets of the Clarendon edition of the Life to "British prisoners of war and interned persons in Europe" by the King and Queen (68). He makes excellent [End Page 466] use of a letter to Johnson from Melanchton's tomb, whereon Boswell "vowed to Mr. Johnson an eternal attachment" (32). Two chapters reread Johnson's Journey against Boswell's Tour, considering the motifs of "subordination" and "exchange," and discussing money in conjunction with letters. I would like to have seen Adam Smith added to Gibbon, and more made of the books Johnson found on and added to, Scottish bookshelves. On the road to Fores, Johnson quoted Macbeth, adding "This to an Englishman is classic ground"; making noticeably good use of the idea of "culture," Hart adds that "what falls outside the dominant culture is already marked by it" (113). That phrase, "the dominant culture," makes one wonder if the view of the English inferred here also reflects that from Melbourne, where Hart is a professor. The most successful chapter is on "everyday" life in "On the Death of Dr. Robert Levet" and the Life, although I don't see how a cultural critic can say...