Sent to Hell, Sir, and punished everlastingly


The historian who sets out to write a new biography of Samuel Johnson is in more or less the same position as someone who sets out to write a day-by-day account of the life of Samuel Pepys. Although the promise is to see the thing from a new angle, the truth is that the thing and the angle it was seen from originally are essentially the same. Samuel Johnson was a fine poet, a good if solemn essayist, and an inspired critic of other people’s writing. But the Johnson we remember is the one James Boswell wrote down. Great wits abound. The novelist Reggie Turner was, most people agreed, the wittiest talker of the eighteen-nineties, not a bad vintage for witty talkers; when he eventually got a biography, not a single witty remark remained, and his life sank with his Life. Johnson survives because Boswell was there to write down that when Johnson was asked if any man alive could have written the pseudo-bard Ossian’s poems he said, “Yes, sir, many men, many women, and many children,” and that when he was asked his view of “Gulliver’s Travels” he said, “When once you have thought of big men and little men, it is very easy to do all the rest,” and that when a dense disciple said, “I don’t understand you, Sir,” Johnson, speaking for every teacher, said, “Sir, I have found you an argument, but I am not obliged to find you an understanding,” and that he observed of a pious libertine, “Yes, sir, no man is a hypocrite in his pleasures.” He lives in his talk, and his talk lives because of his listener.

more from The New Yorker here.