A rigorous poll of me found that the best nonfiction book published this year in English was Leo Damrosch’s “The Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped an Age.” In our dying, dismally begotten, pernicious year of 2019, Damrosch shows us how people and politicians of opposing views — even virulently opposed views — used to get along.
No more, alas. Not in this country. Not today.
Samuel Johnson, author of the monumental Dictionary of the English Language, Lives of the English Poets, and subject of what still today is regarded as the greatest biography ever written, Boswell’s Life of Johnson, was a peculiar and melancholic man. Today we would call it depression.
To alleviate Dr. Johnson’s suffering, the fashionable and wealthy portrait artist Joshua Reynolds suggested they host a weekly club, Friday nights, at the Turk’s Head tavern in London.
It’s clear, from scholarship, that Reynolds did this to try to relieve The Great Cham from his depression.
Members of this jolly club included Johnson and Boswell, the philosopher-statesman Edmund Burke, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire historian Edward Gibbon, The Wealth of Nations author Adam Smith, poet-playwright Oliver Goldsmith, the virtual founder of modern acting David Garrick, Shakespeare scholar George Steevens, parliamentarian Charles J. Fox, and many other clever men gone and forgotten.
It’s highly unlikely that such a range of brainpower ever met elsewhere in one place, and even less likely that they did so for the purpose of congenial conversation. Members of The Club — it never had another name — had to be elected by unanimous vote of the members, so it’s even more surprising than the fact that the club existed at all that some of the members despised each other.
Johnson and Boswell hated Gibbon, if we can believe Damrosch, because of the last two chapters of The Decline and Fall, in which he calmly and rationally explained why the rise of Christianity need not be attributed to Divine intervention. Today we would call Johnson, so lucid in so many ways, a religious bigot. Indeed, that description would cover, for us today, virtually all the members of the club, save for Burke and Gibbon.
Burke sympathized with the American colonists’ quest for independence, to the horror of Johnson, who blistered the revolutionaries not just for treason to their mother country, but for their despicable acceptance of slavery. Boswell, the elder son of a Scottish laird, wrote a ridiculous pamphlet in favor of slavery. He even suggested that the English poor should be encouraged to drink gin, as an adequate compensation for their hunger and misery.
Burke also questioned the legitimacy of English rule in India, a view that outraged Johnson, and with which the other club members disagreed.
Club members Burke and Fox were parliamentary rivals. And so on.
What lessons, if any, does this bear for us today? Well, first of all, these men knew what they were talking about, and if they did not, they shut up and listened.
Second, what they took for piety strikes many of us today as religious bigotry — as many of our own beliefs will surely strike future generations.
But above all, on page 270 Damrosch presents a quote from Dr. Johnson that describes the situation in Washington, D.C. today. A poet named James MacPherson had published a supposed epic poem that he attributed to an ancient bard he called Ossian. Many hailed it as a masterpiece. Johnson saw through it and said it was phony.
MacPherson refused to show anyone his “original” sources and publicly insulted Johnson for doubting him.
Here is how Johnson summed it up: “To revenge reasonable incredulity by refusing evidence is a degree of insolence with which the world is not yet acquainted; and stubborn audacity is the last refuge of guilt.”
All we need do to apply it to our nation today is to tweak one verb: “a degree of insolence with which the world was not yet acquainted.”