- The Reformist Ideas of Samuel Johnson by Stefka Ritchie
My first book review appeared in 1976. In more than forty years, this is the worst book I have reviewed. There is no risk here of breaking the butterfly upon the wheel, for there is neither beauty nor delicacy in Ritchie's work. In fact, I considered characterizing her ponderous prose as Germanic before concluding that would be an insult to all Germans. Here is one of the clearest statements of the thesis: "This study argues that by [sic] bringing 'lesser' historical figures more to the centre can help when debating Johnson's engagement with social issues." Had this been accomplished, had convincing and newly established links been established between Johnson and sources of his social engagement, we might have had a useful study. Instead, we have primarily a citation of previous critics, either to depend on their work or to discuss their "failures" to make links that were too obvious to mention.
The book is a badly written dissertation, poorly revised. Every page contains wordy, overly abstract sentences, usually in the passive voice, and filled with jargon and a lack of continuity. A few examples will suffice: "Peter Clark points to the great number of clubs and societies which swept the country that ranged from political, religious and scientific societies to artistic and literary clubs were and recruited widely from the urban classes." "It appears that Johnson often encoded the message in the context of a contemporary event of controversial nature which presents an additional implication when trying to understand the real point he wanted to make." "The clarity of language and strength of expressions, leave no doubt of the social merit of Johnson's proposition which betrays Cumberland's idea of an individual altruistic devotion to the 'common good' in an utilitarian sense." Sloppiness extends to the documentation. O M Brack Jr. appears the first five times as O J Brack. An attempt to correct this mistake on p. 58 results in "O M Brack Jr Jr [sic]." At least twice offset prose quotations are printed with an unjustified right margin, which makes them look like free verse. Grotius appears as "Grotiusm," process as "prodess," instance as "isntane," among many typographical errors. There is a thirty-nine-page bibliography but no index. Since full documentation is given and often (but inconsistently) repeated in consecutive footnotes in the text, the bibliography seems yet another vestige of a doctoral dissertation.
Apparently one of the goals of the original dissertation was to demonstrate that the author had read widely and with comprehension the relevant scholarship. Whether this is a reasonable aim for a book is doubtful. Moreover, while Ritchie demonstrates wide reading in the relevant (and sometimes irrelevant) material, her mastery of it is unclear, perhaps because she is at pains to establish the failure of earlier critics to recognize adequately Johnson's role as a social reformer. She seems to be of two minds, for example, with regard to Johnson's view of charity. A secular view free from "blind submissiveness to religion" fits her thesis better. Yet elsewhere she seems rightly to see a source of his charity in his Christianity; a mention of the importance of 1 Corinthians 13 among Christians would have gone far to establish this. Instead we are told that the word charity is "French in origin," which shows culpable ignorance of why Johnson indicates the French word derives from the Latin in his Dictionary etymology. Her prejudgment about Johnson's religion is evident: "This part of the chapter provides a brief survey of some critiques [End Page 236] which stress the well-trodden view that Johnson's moral ideas stemmed from his Christian orthodoxy and served no other purpose than to reinforce the image of the scrupulous Christian." Ritchie seems ignorant of Johnson's rejection of overscrupulousness in general, especially in matters of religion. Nor does she exhibit any awareness of the complexity of the concept of evil in intellectual history, as she thrashes about, trying to sort...