- Abyssinia’s Samuel Johnson: Ethiopian Thought in the Making of an English Author by Wendy L. Belcher
by Wendy L. Belcher
Oxford: Oxford UP, 2012.
x + 285 pp. ISBN 9780199793211 cloth.
In Abyssinia’s Samuel Johnson, Wendy Belcher offers an original and provocative reading of a canonical English writer and his relationship to Africa. In the process, she also lays out a compelling model for discussing the relationship between Western and non-Western literatures within the context of postcolonial literary studies.
Samuel Johnson was a leading English intellectual of the eighteenth century, possessed of a brilliant mind, an unequalled linguistic flair, and memorable personal quirks. Today, it is fair to say that Johnson’s reputation as a man of letters rests principally on his literary criticism and his groundbreaking Dictionary. Ironically, he is perhaps best known not for anything he himself wrote, but for being the subject of a remarkable biography by James Boswell.
Within his vast repertoire of topics, Johnson wrote a great deal about Ethiopia, and it is these texts that are the focus of Belcher’s book. The most significant is The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia, an allegorical romance that Johnson hastily composed in 1759, at the age of fifty, in order to pay for his mother’s funeral. Johnson also refers and alludes to Ethiopia in his play Irene and in a number of short tales that appeared in the Rambler and the Idler. All of these texts are taken up in Belcher’s argument, along with the salient fact that Johnson’s first published book, completed when he was only twenty-four years old, was a translation from French into English of Joaquim Le Grand’s own translation of Jerome Lobo’s Portuguese travelogue, A Voyage to Abyssinia. For some reason, Johnson was deeply interested in Ethiopia, and it is the nature of that interest and its impact on him that Belcher probes in some depth.
Rasselas was extraordinarily popular among the British reading public for at least a century after its appearance. Because of Johnson’s status as an abolitionist, and because the text addresses captivity and suffering, the title served as shorthand for a yearning for freedom. Thanks to this symbolism, Rasselas has the distinction of making cameo appearances in a number of major nineteenth-century novels, being mentioned in passing in works by Charlotte Bronte (Jane Eyre), Elizabeth Gaskell (Cranford), Nathaniel Hawthorne (The House of the Seven Gables), Louisa May Alcott (Little Women), and George Eliot (Middlemarch and The Mill on the Floss).
These days, by contrast, Rasselas is read hardly at all, perhaps because it fails to match a modern sense of what a novel should be. The story is highly episodic, with a thin plot and flat characters who are principally vehicles for Johnson’s philosophical musings. When contemporary literary scholars reference Rasselas or Johnson’s other African works, it is usually to emphasize how they participate in what we like to call (following Edward Said) an Orientalist view. Johnson romanticizes his African subjects, he conflates African and Asian locales, and he serves up exotic stereotypes in ways that reveal more about the teller than about the subject. All this from someone who never travelled to any part of Africa and [End Page 239] never knew any African languages. It is easy to dismiss Johnson’s Ethiopian tales along these lines.
Belcher’s argument is that Johnson’s situation is far more complex. Rather than bemoaning how his texts pigeonhole an African subject matter, she turns the tables to argue that Ethiopians—for whom she prefers the term Habesha, to refer to the culturally related communities of the Ethiopian highlands—in fact impacted Johnson and his writing in profound ways. As her subtitle indicates, Belcher wants to argue that Ethiopia has an active role in the making of Samuel Johnson as an author. Though we typically think of an author as controlling his subject matter, Belcher argues that at least to some degree Johnson is controlled by the discourse of those about whom he is writing. Johnson’s writing, she...