Escaping Samuel Johnson | Daily News

Escaping Samuel Johnson

“We see with other eyes, we hear with other ears; and think with other thoughts than those we formerly used,” wrote Thomas Paine, author of Common Sense and The Rights of Man. One of the most persuasive spokesmen for American independence, he championed the clearing away of British “cobwebs, poison and dust” from American society. American independence, he argued, could never be complete without that.

Many Americans thought the same way: that apart from economic stability and success, what they needed almost more than anything else after political independence was intellectual and cultural independence, free from the stifling influence of British arts, letters, and manners. They resented their cultural subservience, which had not disappeared with the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Yet for more than a century after the Revolution, the majority of literate and cultured Americans did not want to turn their backs on British culture, “their ancient heritage”—especially its literature and the historical traditions of its language. About seventy long years after Paine’s statement, the popular English novelist Anthony Trollope elegantly expressed this powerful, persistent, and apparently inescapable linkage: “An American will perhaps consider himself to be as little like an Englishman as he is like a Frenchman.

But he reads Shakespeare through the medium of his own vernacular, and has to undergo the penance of a foreign tongue before he can understand Molière. He separates himself from England in politics and perhaps in affection; but he cannot separate himself from England in mental culture.” Janus-like, and often in a less fully conscious way, Americans knew that their “mental culture,” whether they liked it or not, was linked to Britain’s, and they had little taste for parting with it.

America’s lingering literary and linguistic attachment to England is nowhere so evident as in the nation’s pervasive ambivalence toward Samuel Johnson and his great dictionary, published in 1755, which many call the first major dictionary of the language. He was the great sage of English literature, and a brilliant essayist, moralist, poet, lexicographer, and biographer, the “Colossus of Literature” and “Literary Dictator” of the second half of eighteenth century England, a figure thoroughly synonymous with Englishness.

Throughout his career as an author, Johnson advertised his multilayered and complicated dislike of America and Americans. In 1756, the year after he published his famous dictionary, he coined the term “American dialect” to mean “a tract [trace] of corruption to which every language widely diffused must always be exposed.” He had in mind an undisciplined and barbarous uncouthness of speech. With typical hyperbole on the subject of Americans, he once remarked, “I am willing to love all mankind, except an American … rascals—robbers—pirates.”

Yet Americans could not get enough of him. They devoured his books, which libraries held in great numbers. His influence on American thought and language was vast. Thomas Jefferson recognized this as a grave problem: he wanted to get Johnson off the backs of Americans. In a 1813 letter to his friend, the grammarian John Waldo, Jefferson took note of Johnson’s Dictionary as a specific drag on the country’s cultural growth: “employing its [own] materials,” America could rise to literary and linguistic preeminence, but “not indeed by holding fast to Johnson’s Dictionary; not by raising a hue and cry against every word he has not licensed; but by encouraging and welcoming new compositions of its elements.”

And yet, as one historian writes, “It was to prove more difficult to declare independence from Johnson than it had been to reject George III.” The weight of Johnson’s authority on culture in America was a legacy, both positive and negative, that would loom large in the American psyche far into the nineteenth century. Several of the leading American authors at the time actually fed the appetite for Johnson rather than attempted to dampen it.

One of them, Nathaniel Hawthorne, revered Johnson. Although he complained in Mosses from an Old Manse, “How slowly our [own] literature grows up,” for him Johnson could do no wrong. In London during the 1850s on government business, he recorded in his English Note-Books walking in Johnson’s footsteps—taking a meal at Johnson’s favorite London tavern, the Mitre; traveling up to Lichfield in Staffordshire to pay homage to the great man’s birthplace; and exploring Johnson’s rooms at No. 1 Inner Temple Lane in London, where his imagination luxuriated in the sense of place: “I not only looked in, but went up the first flight, of some broad, well-worn stairs, passing my hand over a heavy, ancient, broken balustrade, on which, no doubt, Johnson’s hand had often rested … Before lunch, I had gone into Bolt Court, where he died.” As for James Fenimore Cooper, he was liberally using Johnson’s Dictionary as his principal authority on the language, even after America’s first large (unabridged) dictionary was published by Noah Webster.

- Paris Review


 

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