March 25, 2009


Samuel Johnson's message to America: What a novel written in despondency says about the pursuit of happiness (Thomas Keymer, 3/25/09, Times Literary Supplement)

Rasselas is a book about happiness, and for all the famous despondency of its author it caught the mood of its time. It was published 250 years ago next month, but no early edition so well reflects the practical as well as philosophical importance that early readers found in Johnson’s theme as the first American edition, published in 1768 by Robert Bell, a radical Irish bookseller who had moved to Philadelphia following the bankruptcy of his business in Dublin. Bell’s Rasselas was a noisily transatlantic, democratizing affair (“AMERICA: PRINTED FOR EVERY PURCHASER”, screams the imprint), and his title page makes a further appeal to common readers with a tag from La Rochefoucauld: “The Labour or Exercise of the Body, freeth Men from Pains of the Mind; and ’tis this that constitutes the Happiness of the Poor”.

Never mind that the narrative to follow was conspicuously less sanguine than this about the blessings of poverty, and indeed about everything else. Bell’s choice of Rasselas as the inaugural publication of his New World career, and as a text that might open the way to felicity for even the humblest of his fellow colonists, was inspired. At a time when the pursuit of happiness was shortly to be defined by Thomas Jefferson as a natural individual right and a collective political aim, here was a work that directly addressed the most enduring, yet also the most pressing, of human concerns.

Johnson was quick to grasp the implications of Bell’s edition when he was sent a copy five years later, and expressed pleasure “because the Printer seems to have expected that it would be scattered among the People”. He would have deplored any attempt to find common ground, however, between Rasselas and the American Declaration of Independence in 1776, with its well-known insistence “that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, & the pursuit of happiness”. Duties, not rights, were at the centre of Johnson’s ethics, and as a staunch conservative (though also a vocal abolitionist) he became the foremost British polemicist against the American Continental Congress in the 1770s. Pieties about equality for all enraged him especially, and in his most scathing denunciation of congressional proceedings, Taxation No Tyranny, he demands to know, with thunderous frankness, “how is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”. Yet Johnson and Jefferson may have been closer in their thinking about the pursuit of happiness, if not about equality or slavery, than either would have cared to admit.

Even before Rasselas, Johnson was writing about social as well as personal felicity as an imperative for the American colonies, no less than for the mother country. “Every society is intitled to all the happiness that can be enjoyed with the security of the whole community”, he declared in 1756, as war for colonial supremacy broke out between Britain and France, and “from this general claim the Americans ought not to be excluded.” For his part, Jefferson seems to have shared with Johnson the central insight of Rasselas that, although pursuing happiness was a necessary endeavour, obtaining it was something else. A standard formula about “pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety” is common to several documents in the swirl of republican rhetoric from which the Declaration emerged, but it was “pursuit” only that entered the text prepared by Jefferson and adopted by the Congress. No mention was made of secure possession, and, as historians of American independence have observed, to speak of pursuit alone was to render problematic our relationship to the happiness we seek, and to emphasize our distance from it.

In his recent book Happiness: A history, Darrin McMahon quotes the unsettling definition of pursuit that Johnson included in his Dictionary of 1755 – “The act of following with hostile intention” – and notes the etymological links with prosecution and persecution. Further connotations are called to mind by the alternative spelling, persuit, favoured in early editions of Rasselas, and in this context – “Yet what, said Nekayah, is to be expected from our persuit of happiness, when . . . happiness itself is the cause of misery?” – it becomes clear that perseverance, and persistent self-persuasion, must also form part of the quest. As Johnson implies in his final chapter, headed “The conclusion, in which nothing is concluded”, the pursuit may derive more meaning from the activity itself than from its prospects of reaching fruition.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 25, 2009 7:16 AM
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