- The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D by Sir John Hawkins, Knt
The tercentenary in 2009 of the birth of Samuel Johnson saw celebratory events on four continents and at least three new biographies of the eighteenth-century man of letters. It is debatable whether any of the recent biographies is a serious rival to W. J. Bate's 1977 work, typically referred to as "magisterial," or to John Wain's 1974 account, the most readable of the modern narratives of Johnson's life. O M Brack's present to the birthday party is of an altogether different type. He has given us the first scholarly edition of Hawkins's work, initially published in 1787, four years before James Boswell's. (B. H. Davis produced an abridged edition of Hawkins in 1961, so it has not been completely unavailable outside of rare book libraries, but almost so.) Two questions arise: is Hawkins worth reading amid numerous alternatives, and if so, has Brack provided a worthy version?
Boswell's Life of Johnson is the best-known English biography of all time, of course, and here Brack has made a wise choice: "cross-references to [End Page 397] [Boswell] and to other early biographers have been kept to a minimum in order to allow Hawkins to tell his own story" (xi). Boswell is hardly mentioned in Hawkins's text itself, the first time more than three-quarters of the way through. Non-Johnsonians may be surprised to learn that Hawkins knew Johnson far longer and perhaps much better than Boswell. Hawkins met Johnson in 1738, was an original member in the earliest Johnson club (1749), and was a daily visitor during his dying days in 1784 (more about this later), as well as one of his executors.
In his Introduction, Brack has outlined several objections made to Hawkins's work when it first appeared. Among these are his digressions: "even though Hawkins was writing a 'life and times,' the miscellaneous matter that makes up the 'times,' on occasion, appears to take on a life of its own and leads the reader away from Johnson" (xxix). Some of the digressions, however, can be defended if one assumes that Hawkins felt the best way to display Johnson's achievements, both literary and moral, was to place them in a comparative context. His text abounds with little pockets of literary history. When discussing the dramatic prologue Johnson provided to his friend David Garrick on the opening of Garrick's Drury Lane Theater in 1747, Hawkins explains the purpose of the general and occasional prologue, "adapted to . . . the opening of a new theatre, a change of management, or any other of those great theatrical revolutions in which the players affect to think all men as much interested as themselves" (119). In explaining Johnson's resuscitation of the periodical essay at mid-century with the Rambler, Hawkins contrasts an antithetical style of moral writing (the classical dialogue favored by Lord Shaftesbury) with what he sees as the stronger tradition of the moral essay, beginning with scriptural wisdom literature, continuing through Montaigne, Bacon, Cowley, and Temple, and flourishing with Addison and Steele. Coming forty years later, Johnson's essays fell on the fertile ground that had resulted from Britain's increased affluence and other social improvements: "women were become proficients in literature, and a man might read a lady's letter without blushing at the spelling" (158). When Hawkins digresses to provide (in a multipage footnote) condensed lives of two minor contemporaries, Nicholas Amhurst and Samuel Boyse, his purpose is clear and his point well-taken. These men, and Johnson's friend Richard Savage, "exhibit an example of the distresses to which idleness and the want of moral principles may expose men of parts" (97n). Theirs was the road not taken by Johnson, but Hawkins shows, with his specific examples, how commonly that road was chosen by people in Johnson's circumstances.
The most important contemporary objection to Hawkins "was his...