Tim Conley: The Unwritten Johnson
Articles » July 2000

"If ever there existed one Samuel Johnson," writes Catherine N. Parke, "there certainly is no single figure now" (3). In fact, there is a Samuel Johnson who demonstrably never existed, about whom I would like to make some educated guesses. Somewhere between the two authorial personae of Dr. Johnson the diligent lexicographer (faster than forty Frenchmen, able to leap the language in a single bound, etc.) and of Johnson the self-professed idler (whose "fine Rambler on the subject of Procrastination was hastily composed... while the boy waited to carry it to press" [Piozzi 34]), there is another ghost. The Unwritten Johnson, the outline of the ambitious author of works which Johnson proposed to write but never did, stands perhaps taller as a figure than the author of Rasselas and "The Vanity of Human Wishes". Boswell, often less valuable for his discrimination in collecting material than for his lack of it, reproduces of a fairly lengthy catalogue, which Johnson gave to Langton, of planned works (divided into categories of "DIVINITY", "PHILOSOPHY, HISTORY, and LITERATURE in general", and "POETRY and works of IMAGINATION" [Boswell, 1363 note 2]). In an exercise of which Johnson himself would likely not approve, I want to make some biographically-based speculations about some of these unwritten works, as well as others; in part about Johnson's interest in such works, but particularly concerning why he did not write them (apart from the obvious brevity of a single lifetime).

Before conjecture begins, though, some reflection on the sincerity behind the proposed works, in view of some of Johnson's remarks on writing, ought to be made. If there is any genuine belief in his infamous statement, "[n]o man but a blockhead ever wrote, but for money" (qtd. in Boswell 731), the unwritten works remain unwritten because of leisure not to do them. If not fabulously wealthy, Johnson had the security of his pension "without asking for it" (qtd. in Boswell 1153): he was not hard up enough to sweat out translating Plutarch. This is certainly not a Johnsonian sort of reason or excuse; and yet Johnson openly disparaged "drudges of the pen, the manufacturers of literature, who have set up for authors, either with or without a regular initiation, and like other artificers, have no other care than to deliver their tale of wares at the stated time" (Rambler 230), and, as Boswell phrases it, he "was by no means of opinion, that every man of a learned profession should consider it as incumbent upon him, or as necessary to his credit, to appear as an authour" (Boswell 861). Of the many published writers of London "only a very few can be said to produce, or endeavor to produce new ideas, to extend any principle of science, or gratify the imagination with any uncommon train of images or contexture of events" (Rambler 230). Johnson would not have himself (or by extension, his written work) be superfluous.

Like any writer, though, Johnson could not have seen his way through to every project's completion, due to the distractions life affords. Alternately amused and frustrated by the prospects of idleness, Johnson recognized his own, with some distaste, when he wrote to Boswell in 1780: "I have sat at home in Bolt-court, all the summer, thinking to write the Lives [of the Poets], and a great part of the time only thinking" (Boswell 1059). Of course, simply filling time with work is not enough: one must retain focus, and this sometimes eluded Johnson (especially as he grew older and more infirm). As Johnson said of Mallet, who failed to write the Duke of Marlborough's biography, "it sometimes happens that men entangle themselves in their own schemes" (qtd. in Boswell 1020). Such general reasons for not writing may be kept in mind when reflecting on any of Johnson's unwritten projects; but to be fair to him, his status as a perfectionist must not be forgotten. Besides, Boswell and others have noted that it may not be possible to collect all of Johnson's writings; thus, it is not so easy to quantify what exactly he did not write.

Confined to speculations! - but there is no reason why these cannot be made, like educated guesswork, with careful grounding in what extant documentation we have on Johnson's authorial function. I will consider in turn various of the most salient-sounding "works" listed in Langton's catalogue, posing of them questions of why and how Johnson might have written them, before proffering possibilities why he did not do so.

Among Johnson's projects are several English translations, including two of Aristotle (Rhetorick and Ethicks). While it is elementary to note Johnson's interest in either this author or his subjects, which is elsewhere demonstrably strong, there is some slight (and strange) dispute about Johnson's ability with Greek. "`Greek, Sir, (said [Johnson],) is like lace; every man gets as much of it as he can'" (qtd. in Boswell 1081). Petrarch, one of Johnson's formative heroes, gave up the study of the language. How well did Johnson wear his Greek? Whereas Langton claimed to have memorized the Epistle of St. Basil, Johnson admitted that he himself "never made such an effort to learn Greek" (qtd. in Boswell 1079); and although John Hawkins portrays him as an avid reader of Greek works (Johnson, Formation 77), Boswell gives such a slight defence of his hero - "let us not deny to his fame some additional splendour from Greek"- so as to damn him with faint praise. Boswell's Johnson, "though not a great... was a good Greek scholar" (Boswell 1367). Could a merely "good Greek scholar" adequately re-present such difficult works? (Late in life he did translate many Greek apothegms into Latin, but this performance is not of the same magnitude as putting Aristotle into English.)

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