On Tuesday 6th of December, the Dr Johnson Reading Circle met to discuss Johnson’s essays, chosen from Penguins Selected Essays. There were ten essays, four from The Rambler and three from The Adventurer and The Idler, with the first nine written while he was in residence at Gough Square. The topics ranged from literary discussion, Johnson’s interest in biography, musing about grief, and the nature of beginnings and endings.
First, we talked about the physical nature of the essays. That The Rambler and The Adventurer were single sheets, bought cheaply or subscribed to by public places like coffee houses. They were intended as quick reads, to prompt thought and discussion, with an estimated circulation of about five hundred. The Idler was a running column in a larger magazine. Johnson didn’t receive percentages from the sales but sold the copy to the print-seller who could do with the work as they wished.
While not a massive success, collected editions of Rambler pieces, combined with the finished Dictionary were the works that established Johnson’s reputation in the public mind. Boswell was on the hunt to meet Rambler Johnson, not Dictionary Johnson; and Goldsmith, in a piece published before he met Johnson, had him swept to fame for his essays and not his lexicographical work. Even Johnson regarded The Rambler as the truest expression of his works, describing the others as “wine and water” but those essays as “pure wine”. When he showed the early editions to Tetty, she exclaimed;
“I did not imagine you could have written something equal to this.” A bound copy of The Rambler was his last gift to her, shortly before she died.
Before beginning the first Rambler, Johnson wrote a prayer, hoping for the work to have a positive moral impact and to do good. The first essay comes across a little diffident, shy behind a gruff exterior as Johnson bemoans the difficulty of making a good first impression in as short a work as an essay. He also jokes about how the shortness of the work is a benefit, the reader hasn’t wasted much time in reading it, nor the writer in writing it. The shortness of the essay also meant that the writer could make small experiments, with nothing much lost if those experiments go wrong.
Johnson made use of this benefit, filling his essays with short stories, character sketches, playful rants that could almost be observational comedy, and pretend letters from readers. It’s unfortunate that very little of this can be found in Penguin’s Selected Essays, with David Womersley choosing essays that focus on Johnson the stern moralist, a stentorian voice that reasons from generals to specifics and back out again. Despite that, there was a lot we found universal and recognisable in the essays we did read.
Rambler 23 was about editors and critics. Johnson was obviously getting some helpful comments a few months into his essays about how he should be more like The Spectator and should do jokes about funny clubs. He maintains that he is his own person and his own writer and can only follow his own path. He also makes some interesting comments about how a printed word has authority a manuscript doesn’t and everybody feels they can add something to a manuscript. Some people even feel they need to so that they are not “consulted for no purpose”. The editors in the room nodded at that.
Adventurer 138 talked about the life of writers. He describes them as ‘addicted to complaint’ (see Writer’s Twitter) but that they don’t have it so bad;
“To write is, indeed, no unpleasing employment,” though sometimes ideas won’t come or seem to disappear as soon as they are about to be written down. Johnson tackles daydreams of inherited wealth in Adventurer 111, saying that, “life affords no higher pleasure than surmounting difficulties,” and painting the idle wealthy as “the useless filler of existence.” There’s a thoughtful discussion on The Black Act, and the widening of capital crimes in Rambler 114 and a fun look at why people disagree with each other in Adventurer 107.
Rambler 60 sets out Johnson’s views on biography. He explains how it’s an easy genre to exercise reflection and empathy, that all lives have their lessons that can be learned by all people and how the lives of ‘great’ people are most telling in their smallest details. No matter who the person is, they are best understood once “exterior appendages are cast aside”. This was precisely what Boswell would go on to do, to describe Johnson’s life in as much detail as possible, from conversation to smallest habit - he never did get a good answer to what Johnson did with his dried orange peel though.
The last Idler is about endings. There’s always a small pain in saying goodbye and so there was when time was up with the meeting. However, this goodbye was delayed, as all the restaurants were full with early Christmas bookings and we sat at a table in Johnson’s house with takeaway. It was a cosy and convivial time and it was with contentment that we said goodbye, happy to meet again in the new year.