- Outliving Three Centuries? A View of Johnson Studies at the Tercentenary of His Birth
In the famous “Preface” to his edition of Shakespeare, Johnson argued that the century mark was a crucial boundary in the reception of an author:
The Poet, of whose works I have undertaken the revision, may now begin to assume the dignity of an ancient, and claim the privilege of established [End Page 135] fame and prescriptive veneration. He has long outlived his century, the term commonly fixed as the test of literary merit. Whatever advantages he might once derive from personal allusions, local customs, or temporary opinions, have for many years been lost.1
Having passed the three-hundredth anniversary of his birth, Johnson has starred in a detective novel and a Blackadder episode and had his visage and writings plastered onto curiosities ranging from teacups to T-shirts and posters to pence coins. Visitors to his homes in London and Lichfield—both busy tourist attractions—can buy prints and postcards featuring his iconic image. Next to these examples, it seems a bit pedantic to mention his having been the subject of literally thousands of scholarly dissertations, articles, and books. Clearly, Johnson needs no demonstration of his ample claims to “the dignity of an ancient” or the “privilege of established fame.” But few authors can be afforded the luxury of “prescriptive veneration.”
The five books under review were published alongside additional Johnsonian tomes in 2009. The tercentenary, in other words, gave occasion to respectful remembrance by publishing more volumes on Johnson than the usual annual count. Even a quick glance through the books under review shows many promising divergences from some of the once-standard views of Johnsonian scholarship, and with due consideration for differences of audience and genre, each of the five volumes shares the goal quoted in the introduction to Johnson after 300 Years, of “finding legitimate and responsible ways of bringing him into conversation with issues—political, cultural, theoretical, and philosophical as well as literary—that engage modern readers, and that can contribute profoundly to the way in which modern readers think” (3–4). These books demonstrate the liveliness of the controversy surrounding a figure still thought by many to be relatively well understood and therefore relatively uncomplicated. There is a quality and range of curiosity and revisionary energy on display in these works that balances the traditional and the innovative in ways that suggest Johnsonian studies are undergoing something of a renascence.
John Wiltshire’s The Making of Doctor Johnson, as befits a volume in Helm’s “Modern Icons” series, treats Johnson as a cultural entity, unfolding Johnson’s reputation as it was created over time, in both contemporary and posthumous representations of his life and works. If the received understanding of Johnson is imagined as a large canvas, Wiltshire may be likened to a restorative specialist, carefully peeling back the layers and tracing the application of brushstrokes over the centuries by various hands. Wiltshire claims that Johnson “lives in the imagination as a true icon: a face and body inseparable from intellectual and spiritual power” (6). But chronicling the dynamic and contested creation of a major figure proves to be far more revisionary and challenging to our [End Page 136] notions of the canonical figure than a new biography. Wiltshire moves from eighteenth-century caricatures that mock Johnson’s uncontrolled gestures and alleged links between his ungainly figure and his mind, to twentieth-century psychopathological criticism that reads Johnson’s prose to find traces of his alleged psychological afflictions.
Wiltshire begins with a chapter on the...