- Johnson on Demand: Reviews, Prefaces, and Ghost-Writings ed. by O M Brack, Jr., and Robert DeMaria, Jr.
One of the most famous opening lines in all of literature initiates Johnson's letter to James Macpherson: "I received your foolish and impudent note." To read this "heterogeneous volume," which completes in most ways the Yale edition of Johnson's works that began in 1958, is to notice, among many other things, Johnson's talent in beginning. Here are just a few of my favorites: "It is with a mixture of compassion and indignation, that we condescend to continue the dispute with the authors and publishers of the London Magazine: to be engaged in a contest with such antagonists as it is no honour to overcome, is very disgusting; and what honour can be gained by writing against those who cannot read?" "It is now more than half a century since the Paradise Lost, having broke through the cloud with which the unpopularity of its author for a time obscured it, has attracted the general admiration of mankind, who have endeavoured to compensate the error of their first neglect by lavish praises, and boundless veneration." "Such is the power of interest over almost every mind, that no one is long without arguments to prove any position which is ardently wished to be true, or to justify any measures which are dictated by inclination." And one particularly applicable to contributors and readers of the Scriblerian, "That a certain Degree of reputation is acquired merely by approving the works of genius, and testifying a regard to the memory of the Authors, is a truth too evident to be denied."
This publication, volume twenty of the twenty-three volumes of the Yale Johnson but the last to appear, allows well-deserved praise to be given to DeMaria, who took over as general editor of the project with the death of John H. Middendorf in 2007 and, in addition, served as coeditor of several later volumes when it became necessary, including this one. DeMaria's generosity in crediting his deceased coeditor, O M Brack, and other scholars in his notes and introduction is conspicuous but not unusual among Johnsonians, who are notoriously magnanimous. But his industriousness is unparalleled. I was not alone, surely, in thinking that the Yale Johnson would not be completed in my lifetime, and it now has been, at least officially. The editors explain, "we have restricted Johnson's writings for others in the Yale Edition to those works that are wholly or almost wholly by him. A separate volume, apart from the Yale Edition, called Contributions to the Works of Others, is planned." Subsequent references to Contributions throughout this volume suggest that it will contain much of interest.
"The protocols of the Yale Edition" keep the text from being a typical scholarly edition, if one could have been fashioned from materials so heterogeneous and multisourced. DeMaria carefully explains each time he deviates from the protocols, always applying common sense, and he leaves little doubt that we have here the best text likely ever to be produced of this largely journalistic material. Moreover, his explanatory notes expand [End Page 195] considerably Yale's original annotation for the general reader—a largely mythical creature often spoken of but rarely seen. This is not a variorum edition but quite close. The pieces are arranged chronologically, not generically, with exceptions made on occasion to allow the tranching of related material that extends over time; for example, "Occasional Writing for Charlotte Lennox," "Writings for Giuseppe Baretti," and "Writings for Charles Burney." Rarely does one get the sense that material is included merely for the sake of inclusiveness, although few will find compelling his "Political Writing for Henry Thrale."
One value of this edition is its ability to give all parts of a topic. For example, there are three Johnsonian reactions to Hanway's Journal of Eight Days Journey … [and] an essay on tea (1756), all published in the Literary Magazine: first, a short notice of a...