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The Antagonisms and Affinities of Johnson and Gibbon MARTINE WATSON BROWNLEY On both personal and intellectual grounds, the relationship be­ tween Samuel Johnson and Edward Gibbon has usually been por­ trayed in terms of contrasts and antagonisms. From the outside, in respect to appearance and manners, the younger Colman's recollec­ tions of an evening spent with the two men when he was a boy of thir­ teen remain the most striking summation: On the day I first sat down with Johnson, in his rusty brown, and his black worsteads, Gibbon was placed opposite to me in a suit of flower'd velvet, with a bag and sword. Each had his measured phra­ seology, and Johnson's famous parallel, between Dryden and Pope, might be loosely parodied, in reference to himself and Gibbon.— Johnson's style was grand, and Gibbon's elegant; the stateliness of the former was sometimes pedantick, and the polish of the latter was occasionally finical. Johnson march'd to kettle-drums and trumpets; Gibbon moved to flutes and haut-boys; Johnson hew'd passages through the Alps, while Gibbon leveil'd walks through parks and gardens. Maul'd as I had been by Johnson [who had been rude to Colman when introduced], Gibbon pour'd balm upon my bruises, by condescending, once or twice, in the course of the eve­ ning, to talk with me;—the great historian was light and playful, suiting his matter to the capacity of the boy. . . .1 From Boswell on, commentators have tended to see the exterior con­ trasts between the two men as emblematic of deeper intellectual an­ 183 184 / BROWNLEY tagonisms, particularly relying on some of Johnson's more reductive remarks about history and others' assessments of these ("There is but a shallow stream of thought in history," for example, and "General history had little of his regard"2). Recently, however, John A. Vance has corrected certain oversimplified dichotomies in this area by show­ ing in detail the many similarities in the attitudes of the two toward Gibbon's chosen field.3 One way of approaching the minds and charac­ ters of these two complex men is to take a closer look at some of the contrasts and comparisons that can be drawn between them. Under­ lying similarities beneath the personal differences and other deeper contrasts beyond certain affinities in their intellectual stances can il­ lumine some of the strengths and weaknesses of both Gibbon and Johnson as men and as thinkers. Johnson's and Gibbon's habits differed as radically as their appear­ ances. Gibbon, rigidly punctual, rose early every morning; Johnson, chronically lax about adhering to a schedule, found it difficult to get up at all. The affected French mannerisms favored by Gibbon contrasted with Johnson's doggedly English brusqueness. Their ap­ proaches toward social conversation succinctly highlight the differ­ ences in their attitudes and behavior. Johnson's abilities in fiery and brutally direct intellectual exchanges, and his love of them, are too well known to require comment. In contrast, Gibbon is often thought of as disliking conversation, largely because of Boswell's depictions of him in the Life. But Gibbon actually enjoyed talking with others, as long as it was on his own terms; he insisted that he sought conversa­ tion "always . . . with a view to amusement rather than informa­ tion."4 His contemporaries' complaints—"He appears rather inditing to an amanuensis than holding conversation"; "There was no inter­ change of ideas, for no one had a chance of replying"5—reveal how he dominated groups in which he was the most important person. In conversation, as in life generally, Johnson, aggressively asserting his powers, overwhelmed by force at close range; Gibbon, cautious and retiring, maintained his position by engaging only at a discrete dis­ tance. These contrasting modes were strategies evolved to fulfill the same purposes: to protect the self and to control the responses of other people. Similarly, many of the disparities in behavior between the two can be seen as individual adjustments which each made to personal experiences and circumstances which were in important ways markedly similar. Uneasy family relationships, youthful physical disabilities, and so­ cial awkwardness and ineptness were among the factors...


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pp. 183-195
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