Commentary Magazine

Samuel Johnson, by John Wain

Samuel Johnson
by John Wain.
Viking. 388 pp. $12.50.

“There is no research in this book,” John Wain tells us frankly in his Note on Sources, and he positively avoided reading modern studies of Johnson while writing it. “This book, like all my work of the critical and expository kind, is addressed to the intelligent general reader.” He wants to make Dr. Johnson a living figure to such readers, who tend to think of him as a “stupid old reactionary,” or at least ignore “the finer and more humane points of his thinking.” Mr. Wain’s book is therefore not addressed to Johnson scholars, and it would be inappropriate to discuss it in terms of any new light of an academic nature it might throw on its subject. The book is a contribution to general culture today, to the culture of the reading public’s mind and heart, to what used to be called humanism.

The intelligent general reader is a ghost from the 19th century. George Eliot and Charles Dickens addressed themselves to him; Samuel Beckett and Susan Sontag do not. This cultural tradition, which calls on the writer to make his major effort in the task of relating his theory or new knowledge to its imaginative and social uses, is still comparatively strong in England; American scholars have been more influenced by German and French examples, which expect the writer’s major effort in areas of speculation and research that defy social application.

If we consider Wain’s book within the English tradition—which would include Orwell’s critical essays, Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy, and Johnson’s own Lives of the Poets—we can say immediately that it does not disgrace its affiliation. Wain has a strong, vivid, and original sense of Johnson, and an especially vivid sense of his geographical and social contexts, and he writes very easily and unaffectedly about him, participating in all his predicaments without intruding his own personality:

Life was hard in those winters of 1738 and 1739, not only for Johnson but for all the underpaid, overburdened creatures whose fate it was to scratch out a living with a pen.

The book has a strong narrative and character interest, and at the same time is full of a serious engagement with what Johnson means to us. It is a book full of an idea, even though its vocabulary is insistently concrete, pictorial, narrative.

What Johnson means to us, according to Wain, is suggested by a sentence like this: “Johnson’s steadiness, his sturdy roots of Staffordshire commonsense, protected him from sliding into incurable habits of improvidence and self-indulgence.” He is an example to us, in other words, of steadiness and sturdiness, and of manliness above all; of the roots of these virtues in popular culture, and of their flowering in the realm of poetry, religion, literature. To take such a man as hero implies a “populist” view of art which is the natural complement of a critic’s addressing himself to the intelligent general reader. So the book’s choice of subject too is part of that tradition of scholarship which has been England’s characteristic contribution over the last generation or so.

I have mentioned George Orwell’s essays as belonging to this tradition, and it is worth noting that Orwell is a longstanding favorite of Wain’s, who here compares him with Johnson. There is also much in the criticism of F. R. Leavis, that other intellectual hero of England in the 50’s, which belongs to that tradition; and even more in the work of Raymond Williams and Richard Hoggart, who between them have been the masters of serious young minds in England since the 50’s. Hoggart’s Uses of Literacy and Williams’s Culture and Society and the many books that follow from them are all concerned with the interactions of high with popular culture, of “cultural” values with political ones, and all breathe a noble provincial conservatism. That is, they press the claims of old achieved values, popular as well as literary, and are suspicious of metropolitan and “American” sophistication and technological and theoretical innovations in culture.

In the realm of art this sensibility has not been so triumphant, even in England, as in the realm of ideas and the essay. But it has found expression in the work of that group of novelists and poets first known as the Angry Young Men—to whom Wain himself belonged—and in Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis’s early novels. Their work took up some of Orwell’s themes, and created images of working-class provincial virtue, in contrast to metropolitan dandyism. Amis has recently followed another path, but Wain’s novels still present choices and call upon sympathies of this conservative and provincial kind. Thus, in his A Winter in the Hills (1970) his protagonist begins with an attraction to a rootless California blonde named Beverly, but finds his real adventure in getting involved in the unglamorous affairs of a few families in a provincial Welsh town. Samuel Johnson can be taken as an extension of just the same teaching into the areas of biography and criticism.

Thus Wain characterizes 18th’ century England for us—and stresses its difference from the 20th century—by noting its stability; and describes Johnson going to an Oxford “unimaginably more beautiful and peaceful than she will ever be again.” There is nothing wrong with this, but it is powerfully conservative in feeling, and it is to the point that Wain himself has recently gone to live in Oxford. Similarly, he praises Johnson as being unlike the average intellectual, whose thought about the world begins and ends with himself. Johnson saw that the world must arrange itself in a way that suits the majority of its inhabitants; and that he, and other intellectuals, must take their chance of happiness within that order. Johnson is contrasted with Bertrand Russell—the typical modern intellectual; all Wain’s preference goes to the former.

Like Johnson, Wain has published several volumes of literary criticism and of poetry, and he challenges us more or less openly to consider him as a 20th-century version of Johnson. Despite the differences, there are times when he does sound like his subject:

I have been reading the Lives of the Poets for thirty years, and can testify that in all that time I have never known the day or the hour when I failed to find interest, instruction, amusement, somewhere in their pages.

Clearly, some stylistic identification has been going on here. Wain tells us he sees Johnson’s life from the inside since he himself was born in the same district and social milieu, went to the same university, Oxford, and has made his living in Grub Street. “The literary and social situation Johnson knew in its early days, I know in its twilight.” (The word “twilight,” like the word “winter” in the title of his novel, sounds one of Wain’s dominant notes.) Moreover, having been rebellious in his youth, like Johnson, Wain is now largely conservative. And manliness, finally, is clearly the mode of his moralism. The jacket invites you to compare the two faces, Johnson’s in his wig, Wain’s in his cap and muffler; there is no physical similarity, but both are attractive and impressive in somewhat the same way.



“Attractive” and “impressive” must remain words to apply to this book. But . . . there remains a but. The category, “conservative,” does in the end circumscribe it, in its tactics, its own inner life, and its aim and message. It seems to me that Kingsley Amis, who by his literary and intellectual tactics betrays and insults this kind of moral conservatism, will in the long run serve it better. Amis’s ways of insulting those values—to which he himself is ambivalently loyal—are unattractive, but exploratory, challenging, lively. There is nothing exploratory or challenging in Wain’s view, and its long-range effect may be to arouse restlessness.

I can perhaps suggest what I mean—the seed of discontent sown beneath the mind’s surface—by examining one feature of the writing in the book. Wain lays much stress on Johnson’s size: his huge limbs and weight, to start with, then his awkwardness and grossness and ugliness, which intensify that character of size, and then his gross appetites and angers; all of which lead on to the theme of his emotional and moral and intellectual size. To give a few examples: “huge bones not yet adequately covered in flesh, wild staring eyes, scrofula-scarred face”; his “terrific mule-kick at Chesterfield”; “like the heroic caryatid that he was.” This vocabulary expresses a generous admiration, but it is disturbing that it is an admiration that focuses so much on Johnson’s force; on his knocking men down.

Not that Wain is alone in this image of Johnson. The earliest biographers dwelled on his size, as did Johnson’s friends to one another and Johnson to them. As Wain points out, Johnson emphasized the size of men he admired and invited his readers to connect them with him. Nor is the point that Johnson was a tyrant; he sternly disciplined his impulses to domineer. But still it was he who did the disciplining—his friends had to rely on him to protect them from himself. He inspired fear, as well as affection, respect, and disrespect. Knowing him was a rich experience just because so many conflicting feelings were held in tension in his friends’ relationship to him. His personality was a work of art, and his life was a theater. He performed his own powerfulness within a social and comic context, and his admirers got the thrill of touching power itself, without having to give up more “mature” values. (In his writing, and his inner spiritual life, Johnson disciplined himself much more completely; his life as a Christian was not theater.) To say all this, then, is not to criticize Johnson, even as a social performer, but to criticize Johnsonians. Johnson is too easy and safe a figure to worship in the name of manhood. He promises that one can have it both ways—be all forcefulness and all social discipline, all spontaneous power and all mature responsibility. To take him as hero is to cease dealing with those who represent either extreme in an unreconciled manner.

I find much to like and admire in this book, but the feeling it leaves me with is sadness—not for Wain but for England. This is what the country has come to. For the twilight and the winter out of which Wain writes are national; and the memory of Johnson is a fire around which he invited his English readers to gather to comfort themselves, in the winter of their discontent. I’m not sure what better there is for them to do, but that this should be the plight of English high culture, once so full of life, is surely heartbreaking.


About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.