Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Consigned to the Flames VII: Samuel Johnson

From The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791), by James Boswell
Had Dr. Johnson written his own life, in conformity with the opinion which he has given, that every man's life may be best written by himself; had he employed in the preservation of his own history, that clearness of narration and elegance of language in which he has embalmed so many eminent persons, the world would probably have had the most perfect example of biography that was ever exhibited. But although he at different times, in a desultory manner, committed to writing many particulars of the progress of his mind and fortunes, he never had persevering diligence enough to form them into a regular composition. Of these memorials a few have been preserved, but the greater part was consigned by him to the flames, a few days before his death.
Johnson had been preoccupied with his impending end for years, a perhaps not unreasonable response to the various health problems that beset him throughout his life. Even as early as Easter Week of 1775, nearly nine years before his eventual death, he wrote in one of his surviving diaries,
Of the use of time or of my commendation of myself I thought no more, but lost life in restless nights and broken days, till this week awakened my attention.

This year has passed with very little improvement, perhaps with diminution of knowledge. Much time I have not left. Infirmities oppress me. But much remains to be done.
He concluded with another of his frequent injunctions to himself to be less of a slugabed:
I hope to rise at eight or sooner in the morning.
So it is no surprise that in December of 1784, suffering from worsening emphysema, the after-effects of a stroke, and a weakening heart, Johnson began to work in earnest to put his affairs in order. Adam Sisman succinctly recounts Johnson's last days in Boswell's Presumptuous Task (2000):
He made a will, and burned some of his papers and diaries. He spent much of the time in prayer. On 13 December 1784, at about seven o'clock in the evening, he died.
We're left wondering what criteria Johnson employed in choosing what to burn. (Though perhaps Johnson scholars have answered this question?) What he did not destroy is by no means uniformly flattering. His journals are full of self-reproaches and failed resolutions, so his decisions surely weren't driven--or at least weren't solely driven--by a desire to improve posterity's view of his character. Perhaps he excised painful accounts of difficulties in his marriage to his first wife, Tetty--though Johnson claimed nothing but happiness with Tetty, contemporary accounts (which, to be fair, are themselves disputable) paint her as, at minimum, problematically awkward. Boswell notes that
her person and manner, as described to me by the late Mr. Garrick, were by no means pleasing to others.
Or perhaps he destroyed accounts of the frustrated romantic hopes that many believe he later pinned on his friend Hester Thrale. Or--treasure of treasures--perhaps he burned candid impressions of Boswell himself!

Sadly, the flames have done their work. Fortunately, however, so did Boswell, and it is he who shall accompany me and Stacey soon on a pilgrimage to Lichfield to see Johnson's birthplace. It's hard to imagine much better company.

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