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WritingtoMr.Rambler: SamuelJohnsonandExemplary Autobiography LISABERGLUND SamuelJohnsonbeginsRambler87byconsideringwhyadvice,theper- iodicalwriter'speculiarprovince,sooftenfailsofitsobject:"Thatfew thingsaresoliberallybestowed,orsquanderedwithsolittleeffect,asgood advice,hasbeengenerallyobserved;andmanysagepositionshavebeen advancedconcerningthereasonsofthiscomplaint,andthemeansofremovingit ."1Hegoesontoshowthatthecounselorswhodiagnoseourfail- uretoheedgoodadvicearecomplicitinthatfailure.Asthewordsage sardonicallyimplies,advisersareofteneitherphilosophersremovedfrom therealitiesofeverydaylife,orelseairyspeculatistslikeSoameJenyns, whocouldcomfortablytellthepoorthattheywerehappy,andthenwon- derattheircontumaciousmisery.Unabletoimaginetherequirementsof thosewhomtheywouldreform,theseadvisersblamethepatientsforthe insufficiencyoftheirprescriptions,Johnsonargues:"Thisperverseneglect ofthemostsalutaryprecepts,andstubbornresistanceofthemostpathetic persuasion,isusuallyimputedtohimbywhomthecounselisreceived, andweoftenhearitmentionedasasignofhopelessdepravity,thatthough goodadvicewasgiven,ithaswroughtnoreformation"(3:94). Theerrorliesinimpartingadvicesolelyinpreceptualform.Objectsof supercilioushelpfulnessresistsostubbornlybecausetheyhavenotbeen taughttoconvertthegeneraltruthsthatadviserssupplyintoremediesfor theirownparticularproblems.Therefore,Johnsonbelieves,advicesuc- 241 242/BERGLUND ceedsbestintheformheoutlinesinRambler60,throughexamplesdrawn fromthelivesofordinarymenandwomen.AsJohnsonwritesinthatessay onbiography,"Ihaveoftenthoughtthattherehasrarelypassedalifeof whichajudiciousandfaithfulnarrativewouldnotbeuseful"(3:320). Johnsonwrotemanysuchnarratives.InthefirstsentenceofhisLife,Boswell callsJohnson"himwhoexcelledallmankindinwritingthelivesofoth- ers."2YetTheRambler,whichJohnsonreportedlyvaluedaboveallhisother works,containsnoexamplesofstrictbiographicalwriting;instead,forhis periodicalJohnsoncreatedabodyoffictionallifestories,includingauto- biographicallettersfromsixty-threeimaginaryreadersandfifteencharac- tersketchesnarratedbyMr.Rambler. Inshapinghisperiodical,Johnsonnotonlyappearstoside-stephisown recommendationofthegenreofbiography,butalso,inthecorrespondence withMr.Rambler,heclearlydeviatesfromtheepistolaryconventionsex- emplifiedbyAddisonandSteele'sTheSpectator?Thelettertotheeditor,a genrethatinvitesreaderstobecomewriters,presumablywouldappealto Johnson;however,hechosenottoprintoutsidematerial,apartfromahand- fulofpiecesbyfriends.4Johnsonthusseeminglyclosedadooruponhis readers,onethatSteele,Dunton(inTheAthenianMercury),andDefoe(in TheReview)hadsetinvitinglyajar.HealsorejectedSteele'sformatofa singlepaperthatinterspersedwhimsicalanecdotessuppliedbyreaders, brieflettersbeggingadviceorventingcomplaints,andeditorialcomments. Perversely,giventhepopularityofSteele'smodel,TheRambler'scorre- spondenceconsistsalmostentirelyof1,500-wordautobiographicalcon- fessions.5 ThefactthatTheSpectatorservedJohnsonlargelyasanegativeex- amplesurprisedthosefriendswhoactuallydidcontributetoTheRambler andwhoselettersfaithfullyevokethemorepopularseries.Samuel RichardsonwritesinRambler97:"Icannotbutwishthatyouwouldoftener takecognizanceofthemannersofthebetterhalfofthehumanspecies, thatifyourpreceptsandobservationsbecarrieddowntoposterity,the Spectatormayshowtotherisinggenerationwhatwerethefashionable folliesoftheirgrandmothers,theRambleroftheirmothers,andthatfrom boththeymaydrawinstructionandwarning"(4:153-54).ElizabethCarter, inthecharacterof"Chariessa,"writescomicallythatMr.Ramblershould "giveaveryclearandampledescriptionofthewholesetofpoliteacquire- ments,"andherletterenumeratestopicspopularizedbyTheSpectator(100; 4:170).Confirminghowwidelythisresponsewasshared,inRambler23 Johnsonlistscomplaintsfromreaderswhopreferthestyleandcontentof theearlierperiodical—theyregrettheabsenceofaconcretelyrealizedcon- trollingnarratorandhisClub,andcriticizetheessayistfor"neglectfing]to WritingtoMr.Rambler:SamuelJohnsonandAutobiography/243 taketheladiesunderhisprotection"(3:129).Inhisstudyofcontemporary distributionoftheRambleressaysintheprovincialpress,RoyMcKeen WilesnotesthatRichardsonandCarter'simitativetributestoTheSpecta- torweremorefrequentlyreprintedthananyoftheRamblerswrittenby Johnsonhimself.6 JohnsoncouldhaveapproximatedTheSpectatorhadhewished.InRam- bler126,heoffersafineimitationofthediversityandsprightlinessof Steele'stypicalcollectionofletters.7Healsohadaccesstocomparable material;Wilesnotesthatthecolophonfortheperiodicalregularlyincluded thewords"whereLettersfortheramblerarereceived,andthepreceding numbersmaybehad."8Internalevidence,beyondthecomplaintsofun- publishedcorrespondentsthatJohnsondescribesinRamblers20and23, suggeststhatJohnsoncontinuedtoreceive,read,andevenrespondtolet- tersfromhisreaders.Forexample,Rambler121,acritiqueofliteraryimi- tation,begins,"Ihavebeeninformedbyaletter,fromoneoftheuniversi- ties,thatamongtheyouthfromwhomthenextswarmofreasonersisto learnphilosophy...therearemanywho...contentthemselveswiththe secondaryknowledge,whichaconvenientbenchinacoffee-housecan supply....Thesehumbleretailersofknowledgemycorrespondentstig- matizeswiththenameofEchoes"(4:280-281).Iamconfidentthatthis materialindeedparaphrasesanactuallettertoTheRambler,sincenothing inthesubjectofliteraryimitationsuggestsareasonforinventingacorre- spondenttointroducethetopic.Moreover,bycallingtheimitators"Ech- oes"thewriterhimselfisechoingthepracticeoflabelingpopularizedby TheSpectator,whichhadinitsdayclassifiedvariousgroupsinLondon societyasPicts,Lowngers,Idols,andBiters. WhileJohnsonpublishedlittlereadercorrespondence,hedidnotreject theepistolaryform,andinfactheemployeditincreasinglyoverthe periodical'stwoyearsoflife.Lettersandcharactersketchesmakeup31 percentoftheessaysinthefirstsixmonthsofTheRambler,from20March 1750to15September1750;33percentbetween18September1750and 16March1751;38percentbetween19March1751and14September 1751;and46percentbetween17September1751andthefinalessay,14 March1752.ThequestionthatTheRambler'simaginarycorrespondence raises,then,isnotjust,WhydidJohnsonincludeepistles?but,Whydidhe writethemhimself?Inpart,hemayhavewishedtopreserveoneeffectof theappearanceofepistolaryexchange:thecreationofwhatKathryn Shevelowcallsa"communityofthetext."WritingofTheAthenianMer- cury,Shevelownotesthatletterstotheeditor"projectanimageofacom- munityofreadersmutuallyengaged"inproducingtheliterarywork,a groupoftenmodeledonthecharactersoftheeditorandhisfellowcon- 244/BERGLUND tributors.9TheRambler'stextual"community"maylackthetiesoffriend- shiporofbloodthatunitetheSpectatorCluborFielding'sVinegarfamily, theostensiblecorrespondentsforTheChampion,buttheyareboundto- getherbytheirmutualinterestinthesameperiodical.Throughtheletters, Johnsondepictsimaginaryreaderswholearnofoneanother'slives,find thattheysharesimilarproblems,andproffertheirhistoriesasexemplafor fellow readers. IntheretrospectiveRambler208,Johnsonlabelshisimaginarycorre- spondence"picturesoflife"andreviewshisfictiveepistlesinwordsthat echohispraiseofbiography:"Ihaveneverbeensostudiousofnoveltyor surprise,astodepartwhollyfromallresemblance...[for]asthey[the letters]deviatefurtherfromreality,theybecomelessuseful,becausetheir lessonswillfailofapplication.Themindofthereaderiscarriedaway fromthecontemplationofhisownmanners;hefindsinhimselfnolike- nesstothephantombeforehim,andthoughhelaughsorrages,isnot reformed"(5:320).Similarly,Rambler60notesthat,"Ourpassionsare... morestronglymoved,inproportionaswecanmorereadilyadoptthepains orpleasureproposedtoourminds,byrecognizingthemasonceourown, orconsideringthemasnaturallyincidenttoourstateoflife"(3:319).Like biography,then,Johnson'sRamblerlettersaimtostimulatelesstheread- ers'inventivethantheircomparativepowers;the"picturesoflife"will instructnotbyupsetting,butbyconfirmingourexpectations.10Johnson inventscorrespondencesothathemaycombinetheflexibilityandappeal offictionandtheusefulnessofbiographywithinthefamiliar,imitablegenre oftheletter. ThevarietyofcorrespondenceincludedinTheRamblerduringitsfirst threemonthsofpublicationshowsthatJohnsononlygraduallydeveloped hispreferredepistolarymodel.ThefirstlettersJohnsonpublishedwere Rambler10'sfourcomic"billets,"contributedbyHesterMulsoasaparody ofTheSpectator.("Billets"isJohnson'sterm[208;5:317].)Mr.Rambler respondstoeachcorrespondentbrieflyandwittily,notinghisreluctanceto followcloselyinSteele'sfootsteps.Bycontrast,thefirstletterbyJohnson himself—writtensixweeksaftercommencingtheperiodical—introduces anarratorwhousesTheRamblerinordertoreachandinstructawide audience.InRambler12,Zosimareviewsherpainfulattemptstofindwork asalady'smaid.True,sheservesmoreasavehicleforreportingona "speciesofcruelty"thanasanexemplarycharacterinherownright,but Johnsonnotablyemphasizesboththefactthatshereadsandtherolethat TheRamblermayplayindisseminatingherlifestory.Zosimareports,for example,thatoneofherprospectiveemployers"orderedmetowrite.I wrotetwolinesoutofsomebookthatlaybyher.Shewonder'dwhatpeople meant,tobreeduppoorgirlstowriteatthatrate.Isuppose,Mrs.Flirt,ifI WritingtoMr.Rambler:SamuelJohnsonandAutobiography/245 wastoseeyourworkitwouldbefinestuff!—Youmaywalk.Iwillnot havelove-letterswrittenfrommyhousetoeveryyoungfellowinthestreet" (3:64).Ofcourse,whenZosimadoeswrite,sheinditesMr.Rambler,in orderthatthetreatmentshehasreceived"maybecomelesscommonwhen ithasbeenonceexposedinitsvariousforms,anditsfullmagnitude"(3:62). Sevenweekslater,inanautobiographicalnarrativesigned"Eubulus,"which comprisesRamblers26and27,Johnsonestablishestheletterformatthat hewillfollowforthedurationoftheperiodical. Rambler20istheonlyessayinwhichJohnsondescribesletters—presumablyrealones —receivedfromreadersotherthanhisfriends.Thises- saysuggestsatleastonereasonJohnsonpreferrednottoprintthelettersof realreaders:whentheywrite,peopleseldomsincerelyattempttocometo termswiththemselvesandtheirobligationsasmembersofthe"commu- nityofthetext."Instead,Johnsonfinds averycommonpracticeamongmycorrespondents,ofwritingunderchar- acterswhichtheycannotsupport,whichareofnousetotheexplanation orenforcementofthatwhichtheydescribeorrecommend;andwhich, therefore,sincetheyassumethemonlyforthesakeofdisplayingtheir abilities,Iwilladvisethemforthefuturetoforbear,aslaboriouswithoutadvantage.(3:110-111)Johnsonproceedstomockwriterswhoincompetently"affectthestyleand nameofladies"andurges"thegentlePhyllis,thatshesendmenomore lettersfromtheHorseGuards."Hethentakesthisandotherlettersashis textforahomilyonthefollyofaffectationanddissimulation.Would-be correspondentslike"Phyllis"failtounderstandthepedagogicalvalueof assumingacharacter;forJohnson,takingonafictionalidentityshould enablethewriterto"explainorenforce"amoralpoint.Readinchrono- logicalorder,thecritiqueofactualletters(Rambler20),thedefenseof divergingfromtheSpectatormodel(Rambler23),andthestandardization oftheautobiographicalnarrativeepistle(Ramblers26and27)illustrate,as PaulFussellhasarguedtosomewhatdifferentends,thatJohnson'shand- lingofboththeformandthecontentofhisperiodicalevolvedashetested variousapproachesinthedynamicenvironmentofbi-weeklypublication.11 Rambler20inparticularimpliesthatJohnsondecidedtosupplyhisown lettersinpartbecauseoftheweaknesseshefoundinactualcorrespon- dence;theexperimentationdescribedhereledhimtoconcludethatanepis- tolarymodelwouldallowhimreliablytointroduceavarietyofcharacters andmoralproblems. InhiswillingnesstosacrificethevarietyandwhimsyofTheSpectator toalmostformulaicconsistency,therefore,Johnsonwasdeliberatelyadapt- ingaconventionalformtoanewfunction,creatingatransparent,directed 246/BERGLUND fictionofexchangewithhisreaders.WhereSteele'scorrespondentsre- maindependentpetitioners,receivingwisdomonlyfromtheauthorityof Mr.Spectator,Johnson'scharacters,asIshalldemonstrate,becomeself- criticalauthorities,usingthevehicleofTheRamblertoinstructtheirfel- lowreaders.TheirrequestsforMr.Rambler'sapprovalareperfunctory andessentiallyrhetorical,sincetheydonotseekadvicesomuchasproffer it,recountingtheirhistoriesasinstructiveillustrationsofordinaryhuman experience.Ifthesubjectraisedinaletterwarrantsfurtheranalysis,Johnson producesaseparateessayratherthanusingtheauthorityofMr.Rambler immediatelytocorrecthisfictionalcorrespondent.12Forexample,Johnson buildson,butdoesnotcontradict,Sophron'spragmaticdiscussionoffru- galityinRambler57,whenhefollowsitwithapaperanalyzingphilosophicalschoolsthatteachcontemptofworldlygoods .ByconfiningMr. Ramblertoexpositoryessays,Johnsonpreservestheintegrityofhisimagi- narycorrespondentsasindependentvoicesandvalorizestheirlifestories.13 SinceJohnsondoesnotpublishactualletters,ofcourse,hisrealreaders neverdoacquirethepoweraffordedbyseeingtheirownworkinprint. Indeed,becauseofwhatBoswellcallsthe"uniformityinitstexture,"14The Rambleralwayskeepstheauthorsquarelybeforeus,displacingeventhe imaginaryaudiencetowhomsomuchoftheperiodicalisattributed.Given thisfact,itistemptingsimplytoparaphraseJohnson'sevaluationof Addison'srigidlycorrecttragedyCato:thecompositionrefersusonlyto thewriter;wepronouncethenameofSophron,butwethinkonJohnson. TheforceofJohnson'smoralvisiondominatesthemostvividlydetailed epistle,sothatwhenreadingTheRamblerwearealwaysawarethatits correspondentshavebeeninventedtoillustratemoralarguments.Johnson's style,infact,preventsusfromforgettingthathiscorrespondentsarefic- tional,anddirectsusformallytoconsiderwhatlessonswearetolearn fromtheirexemplarynarratives.Yet,equallyimportant,thefictionalex- changeswithMr.Ramblerestablishthesecharactersasoursurrogates— theyaretheaudiencethatJohnsonimaginesforhisperiodical,themodels towhomweshouldreferwhenweaskwhatusetomakeofTheRambler.15 StrikinglyabsentfromtheSpectatorlettersisanysystematicdiscussion oftheexperienceofreadingtheperiodical,exceptforfrequentexpres- sionsofenjoyment,oranysenseofhowcorrespondingwithMr.Spectator shouldaffectthewritersortheirfellowreaders.Bycontrast,thecorres- pondencethatJohnsoninventedforTheRamblerinsiststhatreadingand itscorollary,writing,willleadreaderstounderstandthemselves,andto assistfellowreaderswiththeirexamples.Cornelia,forexample,feelsen- couragedtowritebecauseMr.Ramblerhas"allowedaplace...to Euphelia'slettersfromthecountry[Ramblers42and46],andappear[s]to WritingtoMr.Rambler:SamuelJohnsonandAutobiography/247 thinknoformofhumanlifeunworthyof[his]attention"(51;3:273).The epistolarydiscoursealsodepictsanaudiencethatprofitsfromreadingand letter-writingmoreprofoundlythandoparticipantsintheeasyexchanges towhichMr.Spectatorinvitesus.Afterall,grantingthatthecorrespon- denceofbothperiodicalsisshapedbyaneditorialpen,whosetypicalcor- respondentmorecompellinglyportraysanempoweredreader?The"un- fortunate"Celinda,beggingMr.Spectatorto"admonishHusbandsand WiveswhatTermstheyoughttokeeptowardseachother"(178;2:203)? SurelythereaderprofitsmorebyidentifyingwithacharacterlikePertinax, whoseletterdescribesthedamagedonebytheunequalmarriageofhis parents,reviewshislifetodiscoverhowhefellintoan"argumentaide- lirium"ofscepticism,andadvisesthereaderofTheRamblerto"stepon fromtruthtotruthwithconfidenceandquiet"(95;4:148).Epistolarity liberatesJohnson'scharactersandreflectstheirattainmentofmoralmatu- rity.16Paradoxically,byretainingcreativecontroloverhiscorrespondents andtheirletter-writing,Johnsonestablishesanexemplarycommunityof thetextmorepowerfulandpotentiallymoreusefultohisreadersthanthose ofhishebdomedalpredecessors. ThatJohnsonchosetoinventstoriesforTheRambleralsostemsfrom hisfamousviewofcontemporaryfiction.Rambler4acknowledgesthat narrativeisthemostpleasingkindofwriting,notonlyforthosehecalls theyoung,theignorant,andtheidlewhodevournovels,butformoresophisticatedreadersaswell .However,itspowertogivepleasureendangers anaudiencesusceptibletothewrongexamples,andtemptsanirrespon- sibleauthorshipalltoowillingtosupplythem.Therefore,Johnson'spre- ferredroleforfictiondiffersdrasticallyfromtheendsofwritersinterested inearningalivingwiththeirinventions: Thepurposeofthesewritingsissurelynotonlytoshowmankind...

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ISSN
1938-6133
Print ISSN
0360-2370
Pages
pp. 241-259
Launched on MUSE
2010-06-24
Open Access
No
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