July 2, 2005


Dr. Johnson's Revolution (JACK LYNCH, 7/02/05, NY Times)

AS the nation celebrates one anniversary on Monday, the English language is celebrating another. Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language was published 250 years ago. And it is fair to say that the book and the nation have grown up together, and that the one can help us understand the other even today.

Johnson may seem an unlikely guide to America's history; early Americans had what can be charitably described as a love-hate relationship with him. He lived from 1709 to 1784, during which time America transformed itself from a few insignificant colonies on the far side of the planet to an independent nation that defeated the world's most powerful military and began a daring experiment in popular democratic representation.

While Americans were proud of all this, Johnson was unimpressed. He disliked the rebel colonists for their hatred of authority, their unseemly scramble for money, and especially their dependence on slaves. "I am willing to love all mankind, except an American," he wrote. "They are a race of convicts, and ought to be thankful for anything we allow them short of hanging."

Likewise, many colonists saw in Johnson everything they disliked about the mother country - and yet they continued to read, and even admire, the work of this propagandist for King George III. George Washington's copy of Johnson's dictionary survives, his signature prominent on the title page. Thomas Jefferson owned one; in 1771, when he gave a friend a list of books to "fix us in the principles and practices of virtue," the dictionary was on it.

Benjamin Franklin met Johnson in London in 1760, at a monthly meeting of the Associates for Founding Classical Libraries and Supporting Negro Schools, a group founded by the abolitionist Thomas Bray. Soon after, Franklin gave this advice to a friend: "It would be well for you to have a good dictionary at hand, to consult immediately when you meet with a word you do not comprehend."

It will interest no one, but I've made this my own Summer of Sam--reading through the stack of accumulated books by and about Samuel Johnson and James Boswell. Reviews of the seminal mystery series Dr. Johnson, Detector and Adam Sisman's marvelous Boswell's Presumptous Task: The Making of the Life of Dr. Johnson (2001) are already posted and I'm working my way through the unabridged Life of Johnson and The Supplicating Voice. Still to come: Walter Jackson Bate's Samuel Johnson and Johnson's The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia. Plus, Mr. Lynch's own abridged version of the Dictionary is terrific.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 2, 2005 12:00 AM

Have you ever read Steven Millhauser's novel 'Edwin Mullhouse'?

Posted by: carter at July 2, 2005 2:52 PM

The reference is to the Spike Lee movie, which in turn referred to the events of the summer of 1977, which has also been called the summer of sam.


The movie was racist and sexually perverted, it was terrible, junk, garbage, ...

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at July 2, 2005 3:52 PM

Sam was the serial killer who called himself Son of Sam. The other big event of the summer was a blackout that led to the then customary looting.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at July 2, 2005 4:07 PM

For some reason I still haven't gotten around to reading Martin Dressler, but I plan to. I mentioned Edwin Mullhouse because it's the story of the life a genius writer (Mullhouse) as documented by his Boswell-like 'best friend'. Oh, and both are in grade school.

Posted by: carter at July 2, 2005 5:22 PM

David was the killer's name. Sam was the dog next door.

Posted by: Phil at July 4, 2005 4:03 PM

I don't know how many political conclusions you can draw from Washington and Jefferson owning copies of the Dictionary. What other dictionaries were there then? Besides Grose.

Anyhow, Dr. Johnson is a perfect example of the all conservatism is not humor meme. 'Rasselas' would probably make my list of the 10 Unintentionally Funniest Books.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at July 4, 2005 9:05 PM

Except that it was intentional, thereby proving my point about humorlessness.

Posted by: oj at July 4, 2005 9:08 PM