- The Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped an Age by Leo Damrosch
In the early 1770's, Henry and Hester Thrale commissioned Sir Joshua Reynolds to paint portraits of themselves and their inner circle of friends, a group centered on Samuel Johnson. Reynolds designed these thirteen pictures, which were uniform in size and frame, to hang above the bookshelves in the Thrales' new library at Streatham Park. Frances Burney's description of this project as "the chain of Streatham worthies" underscores the fact that the portraits comprised a visual ensemble, one that both mirrored and reinforced what the historian Peter Clark calls "an associational world."
Leo Damrosch's new book, The Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped an Age, aspires to create a literary analogue to Reynolds's exercise in ensemble portraiture and thereby to recreate the associational world of the Literary Club, founded by Reynolds and Johnson in 1764. As the subtitle suggests, Damrosch's picture gallery is dominated by Johnson and Boswell, though it also includes substantial portraits of Reynolds, Edmund Burke, David Garrick, Adam Smith, and Edward Gibbon. The temporal sequence implied by Burney's word "chain" describes this project as well: The Club alternates narrative and pictorial sections as it moves chronologically from the early years of Johnson to the final years of Boswell.
Professor Damrosch is one of the most prolific and versatile eighteenth-century scholars of his generation. His distinguished contributions to the field range from Samuel Johnson and the Tragic Sense (1972) through God's Plot & Man's Stories: Studies in the Fictional Imagination from Milton to Fielding (1985) to Jonathan Swift: His Life & His World (2013). In The Club, by contrast, Damrosch writes not for the scholar but for the common reader—whose "common sense," in Johnson's words from the Life of Gray, preserves her from "the refinements of subtility and the dogmatism of learning." With such an audience in view, Damrosch plays the role of genial docent, whose tour group is bound to relish sprightly anecdotes and spicy personal details. This docent's characteristic mode of address is informal, digressive, off–the–cuff, and exclamatory. He avoids learned references, supplies ample summaries, and delivers his commentary con brio.
In short, The Club rejoices to cultivate the common reader. Unfortunately, it does not treat her with the scrupulous care that Johnson himself would have insisted on. By falling short in matters large and small, Damrosch's guidebook condescends to, and at times even misleads, its intended audience. The non–specialist as well as the scholar, for instance, deserves a fresh and compelling argument—yet The Club does not supply one. The prologue gestures in that direction: "The ideas they tried out on each other, across a very wide range of fields and professions, did much to shape the age they lived in" (2). Yet this general statement, which is never clarified or developed, begs at least three fundamental questions. What sort of program distinguished the Club from other contemporary societies? How was this program related to the social and intellectual chemistry of its gatherings? What does it mean, precisely, to "shape the age"? Damrosch's lack of interest in pursuing such questions means that long stretches of his book consist—indeed, can only consist—of quotations, paraphrases, and descriptions. [End Page 321]
Though he refers in a note to Lawrence Lipking's The Ordering of the Arts in Eighteenth-Century England (1970), Damrosch does not engage with Lipking's thesis—that "ordering" of various kinds was central to the identity and mission of Johnson's circle. Because The Club lacks a bibliography, it is impossible to ascertain how wide a net Damrosch may have cast. But on the evidence of the text and notes, he does not appear to have read and pondered Pat Rogers's important introduction to his edition (Penguin, 1992) of Reynolds's Discourses on Art. There Rogers characterizes the Club's enterprise in terms that might...