samuel johnson: liberal?


None of this, however, makes Johnson fashionable in academic circles, where many write him off not just as a dead white male, but as a high-church, moralistic, Tory, conservative, monarchist misogynist (take your pick). While it is true that Samuel Johnson continues to find favor with various Johnsonian clubs whose members tend to be cultural conservatives, the real Johnson is much more complex than this narrow pigeon-holing would allow. The high Anglican had Methodist, Presbyterian, Quaker, and other low-church friends, admitted to a lifetime of agonizing doubt about his faith, and was known to kneel in prayer at night with the servants. The ardent Tory was also a lifelong opponent of slavery who fiercely criticized the European conquest of Africa and America, and denounced cruelty to indigenous peoples everywhere. He hated capital punishment. His charity to the poor, the sick, and the miserable was so profound that it sometimes shocked his society friends. The supposed misogynist (“A woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hinder legs. It is not done well; but you are surprized to find it done at all”) was actually a major critic of the exploitation of women, a leading advocate of women’s education, and a supportive friend to dozens of women striving for writing careers in an era of male domination. (Mary Wollstonecraft, who met and liked him, put five of Johnson’s works in her feminist anthology, The Female Reader, in 1789.) As Henry Hitchings acknowledges about midway through his superb book, Johnson was in many ways “a progressive liberal.”

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