- Loving Dr. Johnson
It is rather hard to explain—especially to people outside the academy—how and why Samuel Johnson is a major author. He wrote no stageable play, no filmable novel, no delicate lyric, nor mighty epic. Yet Johnson is subject to a great deal of non-scholarly interest and admiration, out of all proportion to his place in the canon (and even more out of proportion if there is no canon). While many literary figures of the past are the subject of university study and academic publication, Johnson is also the focus of societies, web-sites, museums, commemorations, trinket-making, and occasional quotation and misquotation in the popular media. All these assertions may be substantiated easily enough. Of the 1172 authors listed on Mitsuhara Matsuoka's British and Irish Authors on the Web, only 15 have more websites dedicated to them than Johnson.1 For testimony to a more serious level of interest, one may consult Jack Lynch's web-based resource, A Bibliography of Johnsonian Studies, 1986–, for its list of 1,887 items, not including book reviews, published in the last ten years.2 In particular, Johnson continues to be biographed. A rough count finds at least two new biographical works concerning Johnson published every decade since the 1930s, except the 1980s—although there were six in the 1970s. Some of those I've counted focus on "Johnson and" (his friends, Boswell, women, Savage), but a surprising number are major solo biographies, works of popular scholarship, and they sell well, win prizes, and are reprinted in paperback. David Nokes has one in preparation, and no doubt Johnson's forthcoming 300th birthday in 2009 will be ushered in by a few more. Johnson is, among other things, a phenomenon.
I need to say now rather hurriedly that Helen Deutsch's new book is not a biography, nor does it trace—using the sort of data above—the progress of his reputation. How does Johnson stand as a biographical subject, compared with other long-dead authors? What is revealed by a critical reading of the twentieth-century biographies of Johnson? How have the fashions in Johnson scholarship developed? When, where, and by whom was the first Johnson society established? How many such societies are there? How are quotations from Johnson deployed? Why are book collectors attracted to Johnson? These are all good questions, but Loving Dr. Johnson is not a survey of Johnsonian epiphenomena; it is an artful meditation upon the persistence and variety of author-love which has Samuel Johnson as its object.
The collecting, reading (critical and uncritical), quotation, etc. of Johnson are, Helen Deutsch says, "varieties of desire" which focus on representations of him that are—or are by analogy—anecdotal. That Johnson is so readily evoked by such means encourages in readers a sense of personal identification [End Page 220] with him—Loving Dr. Johnson—which characterizes his admirers. And Deutsch does not stand aloof from all this: it is a characterization which she professes and rejoices to share. But she is surprised by the way in which this author-love has resulted in much writing and scholarship which is not, in the honest and academic sense, truly critical. His deformities and eccentricities, for example, do not simply provide us with so much sheer data about him to endlessly process. They also seem to bring him so vividly and vulnerably before us that it seems ungenerous to deal with him with true critical disinterest. Just as Johnson was in his lifetime the locus of a (non-virtual) community, of which many of the manifestations are preserved, so he becomes in his after-life the center of a tradition with a strong social base.
Deutsch's ostensible subject, as she frequently reiterates, is a "kind of desire" (24); she wants to find (or at least examine) "what the love of authors has to do with the love of literature" (12). However, she soon shows that this "kind of desire" is not something to which every author is even potentially subject...