Monday, March 21, 2022

My Monsters



“I do know that for the sympathy of one living being, I would make peace with all. I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other.”
-- Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

I have always loved monsters. Maybe it's because my first friend was King Kong. Not the one you're thinking. My friend is fifty-six years old now, about ten inches tall, with a stout, corduroy body and a blue rubber face. His black beard is all but gone, as is his hair. He is very much the worse for wear. When we were both young, more than one adult took the liberty of saying that Kong was ugly. We didn't mind. I liked that he was. Still do. He was a promotional toy for a short-lived Saturday morning cartoon. I recently looked up the show online and... oh, my. But when I was three years old?  Kong was my guy. It was the nineteen-sixties. Kid's television was not a sophisticated enterprise. Even by the standard of the day though, this was a pretty poor effort. The animation's crude. King Kong was variously the size of  a skyscraper or a Mack truck, consistency and perspective not being obvious priorities in children's animation then. Evidently I loved him for all that. He was good hearted, but he could be scary. I think I kinda liked that. Looking at the cartoons now I realize that the show was designed to be as wholesome as cooked farina, despite having a a rollicking if stupid theme-song and a giant ape. Kong had top billing, but really he was just a sidekick for a stupid little blond boy who was always falling off things or being threatened by other big things and always needing a ride or to be rescued. I hated that kid. Of course I wanted to be him too. I had the same resentment of the actor who played Jai (boy) to Rony Ely's Tarzan. Little bastard got to ride an elephant while sitting in Tarzan's loinclothed lap. (It all may seem so very obvious now, but come on, I was three or four at the time.) My Kong used to have a little plastic version of this boy/friend -- blandly named Bobby Bond -- permanently attached to his arm. When he was new, Kong talked when you pulled the string in his back, or rather Bobby talked and Kong roared sympathetically. Even then I'm pretty sure this seemed lame. Let Kong be Kong! King Kong doesn't need an interpreter, or another friend. (Get lost, Bobby -- and he promptly did, as soon as I was able to pry him off Kong's arm.) No idea why they made the doll blue as he wasn't in the cartoon or the movies, but I liked that he didn't look like anything real. He was a monster. Made sense. We were then always together. Where I went, he came along. Arm came off, got stitched right back on. Lost his voice? I didn't mind. Kong is a survivor. He lives with me still. Now he just sits, benevolent and silent as a Buddha, on my dresser. He wears a little blue sock-vest -- a tiny toy-truss, really -- that my mother made for him when he lost his figure and his stuffing threatened to spill. He was my first monster.  

Just a few years later I was a subscriber to Famous Monsters of Filmland, had a full set of Universal Monster Model Kits that I'd assembled and painted myself, and a poster of the 1931 Frankenstein at the foot of my bed. I loved them all, my monsters, but Frankenstein's monster was my favorite. Still is. I thought Vincent Price the greatest actor of the age and counted Karloff, Peter Cushing, and Christopher Lee as among my dearest imaginary friends. I could tell you more about Bela Lugosi's filmography, and or the process employed in Jack Pierce's best make-ups, than I could about the history of the American Civil War or the illustrators of the OZ books -- with both of which I was nearly as obsessed by then as I was with horror films.

At eleven-thirty on Saturday night in those days there was Chiller Theater with "Chilly Billy" Cardille on Channel Eleven, Pittsburgh, PA. Before I was old enough to stay up late to watch horror movies, I would sometimes creep down the stairs and peer over the back of the sofa while my older brother watched House of Dracula, or The Man Monster, or Blood Sucking Monkeys from West Mifflin, etc. (In those days you watched what they ran.) Before I was really old enough to understand or appreciate the nuances of  cultural exchange, the film that scared me the worst was a fleeting glimpse of a Mexican lucha libre movie in which it was not the bloody werewolf who terrified me, but rather the leading man; a hulking wrestler who wore a skintight mask that covered his whole head. Only his eyes and mouth suggested a man under the mask. He was powerful, violent, and hyper-masculine. What made him scary though was that absent face. Otherwise he dressed like a huge but rather natty car salesman; polished shoes, golf shirts, and tailored sharkskin suits. Nobody in the movie seemed to find this sartorial combination the least bit odd, let alone disturbing. I found it unsettling in ways I could not understand or explain; so many muscles, great, hairy hands, a featureless face, such sharp creases in his slacks. And yet the leading lady clearly found him attractive, mask and all, and nobody ever told him to take it off. No one seemed to notice it. When he lit a cigarette the smoke would curl out the corners of his mask. Scared the bejesus out o' me. When I was a little older, adults regularly asked me if all these monsters didn't give me nightmares. Well, sure. The only one I actually remember giving me more than one sleepless night though was that faceless wrestler in a custom suit.

Television was all rather hit or miss in those days; three channels, four if the weather allowed, and other than Saturday nights, horror wasn't regularly featured in afternoon shows like The Million Dollar Movie. Many classic horror films I knew only by reputation. There were stars like Lon Chaney Sr.  encountered only in film-stills and descriptions in the monster magazines. I had his Phantom of the Opera as a plastic model of course, and I studied the photographs of his make-ups the way other, more pious little boys might study the face of the Virgin in a Renaissance annunciation or St. Sebastian's (ahem) wounds. I learned facial anatomy by way of drawing Chaney's Phantom and his Quasimodo, the actor's face distorted by wires and putty. I drew monsters constantly, the ones I could see and the ones I invented. One of the few drawings to have survived from those long ago days is a fairly accomplished portrait of Karloff in his famous entrance from Frankenstein. (When my father died a few years ago I found this drawing and a number of others I'd done as a child, carefully preserved in a box in Dad's closet. I kept the Karloff.)   

When I was a teenager in the later 1970s my interest in horror films waned as the genre devolved into mindless slashers with high body counts and featureless killers. I still went to those movies, everybody did, but I never loved them the way I'd loved my old black & white monsters. By then books -- including books about film -- had largely supplanted movie monsters as my primary obsession. Novels gave me monsters more complex than the staggering mummies and giant tarantulas of my childhood. Of course by then I'd read Poe, Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker, Sheridan Le Fanu, all those Hitchcock anthologies, The Monkey's Paw, Interview With a Vampire (four times in a row,) and the early Stephen King. At some point I came across Dalton Trumbo's antiwar novel of oppressive body horror, Johnny Got His Gun, and The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gillman, and Guy de Maupassant's The Diary of a Madman. I read William L. Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, cover to cover. I began to appreciate that horror may actually have less to do with ancient curses and supernatural visitations and more to do with anxiety, violence, and ideology. Evil doesn't require a curse or chemicals in technicolor tubes and pipettes, or the substitution of good brains for bad. (And good can come from the defiance of God.) Not all monsters are made in interesting ways. Some monsters we make for ourselves, and or of.

Can't be a serious student of monsters for long and not know that the villain is not always the monster. Anyone may prove a villain. Anyone. Monsters are made. 

Considering my age and established affection for old books, no one should be shocked to learn that I am not much of a fan of new words. The wonders of science and technology require an expansive vocabulary, and nonsense thrives on the scroobious and the runcible, but literature for adults gets largely by on what's already to hand. The answer to this is usually Shakespeare and sometime Joyce, with neither of whom am I prepared to argue. My discomfort* comes mostly from verbing, and words like "verbing,"  aka denominalization, and verbification, all of these words for rendering a noun into a verb, and all, please note, almost equally ugly. English does this easily enough, as it does most things other than spell. Most commonly you just add "ing'' and you're in, friend. I would still argue for "befriend," but I grow old, I grow old, and wear my trousers rolled. (No, honestly I do, 'cause I'm short.) It is not just the newness that makes me wince. "Hashtag" was already ugly to my ear, vaguely German, long before it was verbed (?). There is however one such word I am more than ready to endorse, though I doubt I will ever use it much myself. "Othering" seems to me an idea I needed back when my monsters came mostly in shades of gray and often had fangs. Had I that sense then, I might have understood a bit better my fellow-feeling for protagonists pursued by torch-bearing villagers. I will leave the queer theorizing to them what do it more easily than I, but indeed there was a little fairy at the bottom of our garden, Maud, and it was me -- in case you were missing this.

Later still when I took up reading not only literature and biography but literary biography, I was introduced to yet another category of loveable monsters -- the authors themselves. Not that there aren't absolutely admirable and very decent people who've written great work.  No one really has a cross word to say about Washington Irving and so far as I could tell Charlotte Bronte never hurt a fly. Harmless isn't the same as happy of course. Think of poor John Clare. I still remember the deep and abiding shock of reading a prize winning biography of a prize winning novelist and realizing that the biographer had clearly come to loath his subject. I understand getting in too deep to pull out, but that book seemed cruel. Where was the sympathy for the monster so clearly misunderstood, for the scars and the pains that made him? I had a similar experience some years later when I read a good writer's devastating memoir of a great writer who had once been a friend. In the end neither seemed a very nice man. (It was an interesting book though.) More usual was finding that even favorites were flawed in ways not anticipated from reading their fiction. Dickens did not so much end his first marriage as -- metaphorically -- set his house afire with his poor wife in it. Dear Barbara Pym, the very definition of minor genius clothed in twin-set and pearls had a dalliance among the Nazis and organized a stalking party to trace her gay neighbors' comings and goings?! Heavens, Miss Pym! The diaries of Henry Louis Mencken, the letters of Philip Larkin, there would seem to be no end of ugly, posthumous revelation yet to be had among the surviving papers of the great. The only really monstrous aspect of most writers usually is ego and that's a small price to pay, at least retrospectively, to gain War and Peace or Les Miserables. Some writers seem to have been more than man-sized, their destruction clumsy and unintended, their monstrosity strangely glorious as their intentions were probably good, or at least in noble service of their art. Writers are made just like monsters by compulsions they may never and need not understand. Real writers, great monsters, are fascinating because they want nothing so much as to understand and to be like the rest of us though they aren't. What do most monsters want? To find love, be normal, or worse comes to worst, to be left alone to talk to their maker as they drift on an ice-flow. I certainly get that. Their struggles are ours writ large. Frankly, to me at least it seems easy enough to love Balzac and Jean Rhys and even Gore Vidal now they are all safely (un)dead and cannot die.

Of villains there is no end. The world right now is over-run. Literature? I'm glad to say that genuine and thorough shits like Louis-Ferdinand Celine and Philip Roth are reassuringly rare. Real villains cannot help but gloat and glower and justify themselves despite not having been asked. No more attractive on the page than in the last reel. Other than one's own, resentments are seldom interesting and bullies are always boring when they explain themselves. (That's it? That's how you justified that nasty shit you just did?! Pretty lame, son. Time to go.) Much as we may enjoy the villain, we wait to watch him go off the side of the building every Christmas and we cheer. But, oh my monsters! Monsters are different. Monsters don't die. Some of them can't even when they want to. Villains are selfish. Monsters are cornered. Monsters are compelled, confused, cursed, more than the sum of their badly stitched parts. One might envy a villain his lair or covet his toys, but ultimately we're glad of his failure. Monsters are sympathetic in a strange way even at their worst. Might be as simple as recognition -- there but for. We've all looked in the mirror and seen a monster -- and if you haven't, guess what? You're a villain. Unlike the villain's crimes, the havoc of monsters is made for us all.

Ours is not really a time for great monsters as who has the time for all that back-story? Times are complicated. The future is uncertain. We like our heroes simple again, alas, and our villains barely animated. It's boring. Most of our monsters now are just villains in rubber masks. The masks come off in the big reveal and we've all been Scooby Doo-ed again. Not a monster, just another bad guy, and if it hadn't been for those darned kids! One grows so very tired of those damned kids. But there are still monsters, ancient and modern, and more being made if you only know where to look. My monsters hide in dark corners, covered in dust, and smelling of the tomb. It seems they've been waiting. Some of my monsters are just where I left them, quiet now as Kong, if only for the time being.  The ones I love best haunt old libraries and hide in old bookshops, but their descendants and progeny are not unknown anywhere in the wide world. There are always monsters I haven't met yet. Like still calls to like and I've only to listen. Hear them? They hector and howl and laugh at odd moments and talk to themselves, often in foreign accents. The children of the night, oh, etc. Their variety can be surprising even to those like myself who love them. To admire a monster one must try to understand its nature and yet one must be willing to accept it as it is.  I do not support the idea that monsters make for bad art, or that bad art is always made by monsters. It's the villains you've got to keep an eye on. They always lie. It's rank villainy to deny our monsters, to make men with big muscles our heroes again, and then suggest they are somehow made unhappy in the exercise of their gross power. It's a villain who describes cruelty as common, sees the weak as risible and insists that unkindness is funnier than the fall of pomposity. Villains are selfish and see no sin in this. Monsters rage at the loss of love and long for humanity and death. Good taste and happy endings have their charms, I don't deny it. So do puppet shows and Saturday morning cartoons. But so does a rude Rabelaisian belch, a roaring story, loud women, old witches, so do blood, guts, anguish, and Beckett, and maybe a sustained maniacal laugh. It is personality makes the great monster, not the cleverness of a scheme or the elaboration of a plot or perfectly articulated reasons for past bad behavior. That's all villain shit. Large or small the best monsters are more than just badly behaved, they are us. Monsters belong to us as few characters can. No one loves Dickens for his heroes. Great monsters are never simple, anymore than we like to think ourselves. Monsters are better for being wrong and righteously indignant at their cruel fate, lost and twisted, and trapped, and tragic. Face it, monsters are inherently better than any dull binary of heroes and villains (-- and that, fan-boys, is why Guillermo del Toro deserves an Oscar and the Marvel Universe can suck it!)

Right now my monsters tend to behemoths. Weird in a way, as I've never really been a Kaiju guy. (As a youth I read a crushing essay by a science writer explaining patiently how gravity would defeat most giants and I never quite recovered.) Seems I like 'em big now. Whatever the dimensions and limitations of their authors, I am now in the business of reading big books at least in large part because they big. For the neglected little gems of world literature there will always be customers, and dealers. Happy to help you to a Nina Berberova. Have you read Jenny Diski? Has a working hour passed without my having mentioned Beerbohm and a whole day gone by without Brigid Brophy? How hard can it be to convince a reader of contemporary fiction to pick up a reissued novella or to try a funny essayist when I've been doing largely that for most of my working life? I've always like short books and slight things. I've always preferred the miniaturist to the muralist, the minor to the major, a jazz trio to a big brass band. I am myself a maker of little art. So why and from where this attraction to the monstrous again? 

I need Samuel Johnson now. I need the monstrous profusion of his conversation and the loudness of his voice. I need, Sir, the rolling, sonorous wisdom of a big man of large experience and big, even brutal honesty, to stand surety against the villains. Heroes are all well and good so far as they go, and nobody is kicking Chris Hemsworth out of bed for eating saltine crackers, but I want monsters. I want a face and a soul with scars. I look around me for grotesques. I require exaggeration. The times seem to me to call for roaring. "Life is everywhere a state in which much is to be endured, and little to be enjoyed," he moaned. "The world, in its best state, is nothing more than a larger assembly of beings, combining to counterfeit happiness they do not feel, employing every art and contrivance to embellish life, and to hide their real condition from the eyes of one another," he howls and does us all rough justice. He is not always unhappy, despite his reputation, and he roars just as loud when he laughs And yet, "Human happiness has always its abatements; the brightest sunshine of success is not without a cloud." Monster.  He is right now my giant and I enjoy that he eats hugely, rudely and crushes the petty and the pusillanimous underfoot. He stands astride London, and he stoops to pet his cat. He sits loudly down to a quiet tea with the blind, the halt, the maimed, and the broken. He is grave and yet defies gravity. How not to love such a monster?

I need big books now to weight the scales against the villains. Life and more life, and death too, friends and monsters. After Johnson's wife died he wrote, "I have ever since seemed to myself broken off from mankind; a kind of solitary wanderer in the wild of life, without any direction, or fixed point of view: a gloomy gazer on the world to which I have little relation. Yet I would endeavor, by the help of you and your brother, to supply the want of a closer union, by friendship: and hope to have long the pleasure of being, dear Sir, most affectionately yours..."

Every monster wants a friend. I am glad of my monsters.


"It is true we shall be monsters, cut off from all the world; but on that account we shall be more attached to one another."

-- Mary Shelly, Frankenstein


* Also? Dropped consonants. It's impor'ant, people, you know, like the in'ernet.

Monday, March 14, 2022

Ghosted

 


The first time I read an excellent book, it is to me just as if I had gained a new friend. When I read a book over I have perused before, it resembles the meeting with an old one.

-- Oliver Goldsmith

New books come out on Tuesdays. I'm not sure when this happened, or why, but they nearly all do now. I don't work at the bookstore Tuesday/Wednesday. That's my weekend. I don't mind at all. Easier to to navigate the grocery stores. Come Monday I try to make sure to review the carts that won't go down to the sales floor until the following day. Have to love a sneak-peek at Coming Attractions. There's always something: a long awaited theatrical memoir, a new book of essays, a handsome reissue. But it's winter. These last days before the arrival of Spring are a notoriously lean time, in publishing as elsewhere. The real holidays are long gone. Valentine's Day doesn't offer much book-wise but bromide. President's Day is mattress sales -- another retail mystery I accept without curiosity. St. Patrick's Day never sold a single copy of Seamus Heaney so far as I ever saw, or brought an actual Irishman into the bookstore. So not the most auspicious moment for the new. And this Monday? This Monday I saw bupkis on them carts. 

Honestly though, how hard was I looking? I probably ought not to say so, but I may not care so terribly much anymore, at least on a personal level. War, pandemic, end of the world -- there's been a lot to worry about lately. Potential bestsellers ain't it. Nonetheless new books coming in constitutes the life's blood of the bookstore, any bookstore, so even if I am unlikely to read them, I am always glad to see new books -- as surety of my continued employment. If I am not much exercised to see the latest car added to the ongoing apology train from the last administration, or yet another novel of Iowa Conference angst arriving in a brightly colored, geometrically challenging dustjacket, that doesn't mean I've given up. I'm distracted by reality right now, and I may just be a bit tired of the latest publishing trends. (Florals!) Much as I may sigh at seeing so much that is familiar without being welcome, I am more concerned here with what I don't see.

Time was when book sales were driven by what we call "the backlist" -- or so at least old booksellers tell ourselves. This would be the largely mythical and much lamented depth of representation on bookstore shelves of previously published books: the complete oeuvres of established authors, all the available titles on chicken farming, or C++ computer language, dog books by breed, and the like. When I started working in bookstores thirty five years ago coworkers and publishers' reps were already in sackcloth and ashes at the decline of the backlist. Heretical as it is, I'm not now convinced that we were ever right about the centrality of backlist to our business. Custom more than custom, so to say. I begin to think our shoppers didn't care all that much, or not nearly so much as we did. Meanwhile we counted those same copies of persistent, unsold backlist, physical inventory after physical inventory -- usually until they yellowed and died on the shelf of old age. Nothing so sad as a dead Penguin. Our business model then was predicated on what you might call "the off chance": the off chance that someone might yet want this one's early short stories or that one's first novel, or not one but three books on cooking pasta. We liked to think we could answer nearly any enquiry with an assured, "Indeed we do," but honestly? Never true. Even when we seemed to have everything, some mean little man would find a reason to smirk at our lack of something else. Citrus you say? Yes, but do you have bergamot? It was never a perfect world. Also, everything, or almost everything we did then took more time: ordering books, getting books, selling books, returning books. We just didn't care so much about time and neither did our customers. Much as I miss it, I think the function of backlist even in those much misremembered glory days may have been primarily decorative; meant to comfort the literate and humble the proud. Nowadays the very idea has the musty smell of an abandoned barrel; so big, so broad, so useless, and so quaint. 

I am not yet a complete convert to the new business model of "just in time" ordering and "lean" inventory management. Too many gaps to mind, too few of most things to make much of a display. It can all feel as thin as a model's wrist. Different standard of beauty I guess. Still, all the better for the bottom line, though I never was much good with numbers so I take that on trust. Even I can see that this new model works well enough once you get the hang of it, certainly no worse than the old way, but rather the way a stationary bike does: stable base, quantifiable results, and healthier in the end, but a bit sweaty and grim to witness in practice and not going anywhere interesting.

One of the seemingly unintended consequences of making bookstores grind and gear-change this way just to keep up has been the inevitable regret for what gets left behind. True, bookstores look different and not always in a good way, but it all works much the same way for our customers. It can be a shock to find our computer books all on just the one shelf for example. But no one walking into a bookstore today would be struck by any obvious increase in pace. Still pretty chill on the sales-floor, brah. If anything the offices off the sales-floor have gone quiet in a way no one could have foreseen twenty years ago when there were easily twice, or three times as many people working there. Hard to muster much esprit de corps when the espit is willing but the de corps are few. Still, we manage. Retail is hope or it's nothing. What's most conspicuous, at least to me, are not the books we don't have anymore but the books we aren't likely to see again.

No need to worry about Agatha Christie or Oliver Sacks. If all of their titles are unlikely now to be on the shelf at once, you may trust that none are forgotten. Still money to be made by the estates of both and by the publishers who hold the rights. Dead long or just a little while, copyright keeps the flowers fresh on either's grave. The shades of Charles Dickens and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle rest easy too. Even out of copyright they may safely be said to be as immortal as the language. But immortality is rare. Perhaps that's as it has always been and ought to be. I wonder though that there isn't more of it to go around. 

"O memory! Thou fond deceiver."

 -- Goldsmith, The Captivity, an Oratorio

Memory seems not now to be what it once was. Mine certainly isn't but that's not what I mean. What the word memory means has changed in my lifetime. As a culture we are increasingly okay with memory as capacity rather than practice, storage rather than retention, units not sonnets. What's wanted isn't remembrance but mindfulness. (A friend who has practiced yoga seriously for years once rather irreverently defined the latter for me as "a finely tuned sensitivity to just who farted in class.") I have lived long enough to see time measured in TikToks, reputations made and unmade with Tweets, and influence to be had by opening a box "in real time." If I am in my times but not much of them anymore, that too is as inevitable as it is unsurprising. Doesn't make the moment, or my mindfulness of it particularly pleasant.

So it is that I worry about Goldsmith.

"I love everything that's old: old friends, old times, old books, old wines." 

-- Goldsmith, She Stoops to Conquer

Years ago I was standing at a cash register reading The Vicar of Wakefield again. An acquaintance, an otherwise amiable professor of something or other -- possibly world literature though I wouldn't swear to it now -- casually asked in the course of friendly chat what I was reading. I told him. I was not prepared for the vehemence of his response. Why, he asked me sharply was I wasting my time reading such a bad book? Nobody, he insisted, still read that book, despite the evidence of his own eyes as I was standing right there with the Vicar when he said this. Oliver Goldsmith was a Fleet Street hack, a Protestant apologist, long forgotten and justly so, and so on. This professor had just written a book, I think with his wife, "proving" by something called "intertextual analysis" I believe it was that the writer known as William Shakespeare was really either the 1st Viscount St. Albans or a barmaid named Moll or something of the sort. I didn't read it. When his tirade against Goldsmith sputtered to an end I unkindly said that if the professor's book stayed in print for better than two and a half centuries I should think he might still have readers too. (Sassy. I doubt I said this quite so calmly or so well, but you get the idea. Pretty sure he did.) I believe the professor's wife and or coauthor it was that dragged the angry little man away. 

My confidence in that confrontation came not from my own taste or even from the admirable talent of Oliver Goldsmith but rather from the fact that in those days, to read The Vicar of Wakefield (or She Stoops to Conquer, or Citizen of the World,) I had only to walk to the right shelf in the bookstore and take a copy down. May have been a Penguin paperback, or just as likely Oxford University Press, a Dover Thrift Edition, or a Wordsworth Classic. Whatever it was that put me in mind, the point is that the book required was likely on the shelf. No chance then as now that there was a stack anywhere but a warehouse, but a single copy there would always have been to find in the bookstore or easily reordered if not. So at least is how I remember it. Now? No. That worries me.

If indeed it was so and not just my memory playing tricks, the reason was that Oliver Goldsmith used to be immortal. Maybe his good Vicar wasn't Sherlock Holmes or Shylock immortal, but never out of print and if out of stock but temporarily. Goldsmith was still read and not just by me. I can think of at least four publishers, all still in business, whose business it was to see to this sort of thing. If the reader will allow an older man his moment of irascibility: I never thought I'd see the day when the backlist-catalogs of the most venerable, professional purveyors of English literature would lose so much weight as to look less lean than unhealthy. See? Catalogs. Old.

There are however a depressingly large number of shitty, public domain reprints of the classics available from questionable online retailers. Trust me when I tell you that the quality of the printing is inferior only to the carelessness of the binding and the uniform ugliness of the covers. The idea that these shabby things exist to preserve the heritage of English Letters, or to fill the void left when traditional publishers decided to abandon two thirds of their lists, is laughable. Instead, think the guy who used to set up a card-table by the bodega to sell VHS videos of "the latest releases" in Xeroxed boxes. This, unlike that, isn't piracy, just plunder. The public domain once allowed for competition among publishers looking to maintain or establish their respectability as vendors of serious books. Everybody and their esteemed cousins had a classics-line: Bantam, Signet, etc. Now it is a free for all for the fly by night. For every thoughtful independent and gifted designer -- like my friends at VertVolta Design + Press -- there are a couple dozen ne'er-do-well copy shop crap factories online pumping out expensive paperbacks into which they can barely be bothered to glue the pages. It does not compensate for the missing Penguins.

"A book may be very amusing with numerous errors, or it may be dull without a single absurdity." 

-- Goldsmith, The Vicar of Wakefield

Just here I feel the need to say something that may not appeal to many of my more conservative friends in the book business, certainly not to most readers of my own generation. Maybe it's time to let The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird go. Calm down. I ain't banning -- let alone burning -- anything. I love both books. Both books are easily defined as American classics. Neither should ever be allowed to go out of print. Mark Twain and Harper Lee deserve their millions of devoted readers and the thanks of a grateful nation. It is time however to stop putting these books on middle school reading lists. Neither offers either an entirely honest nor adequate exposition of racism, in part at least because neither author intended to, but more because that actual history has a literature of it's own. It's time to stop endorsing the white narratives of black lives as canonical while offering black authors as supplemental to their own stories. If the assumption is still that no author of color is the equal of Twain, or that "average student" would only be able to understand racism if explained in the innocent voice of a little white girl named Scout-- well there's the problem right there, isn't it?

Let's be honest, the very folks already agitating to prevent the honest presentation of American history in public schools -- for fear it will hurt the feelings of, well, little white girls again --are  such sensitive souls that they will doubtlessly be the first to rush to defend both Huck and Harper Lee -- without necessarily having read or understood either. (Curious, ain't it? The people least familiar with and most afraid of books always think they should be in charge of what the rest of us read.) Now, Just because I don't think Jr. High kids should be required to read something I love doesn't mean I ought not to recommend that something to Jr. High kids or anyone else (meaning you, dear reader.)

Not up to me of course, but then so few things are. I can really only suggest. And maybe don't tell people they need to read A Dissertation on Roast Pork, while I'm at it. That's one of the most frequently reproduced works of English essayist Charles Lamb, one of my own household gods. Is it funny? It is. Is it a classic? It is. Is it harmless fun? Well, generations seem to have thought so. Is it racist? Hard not to read it that way now and I've tried. Lamb has already faded from the memory of most readers, alas, and I will always do my level best to keep that little flame alight, but not everything that is old is good and not everything that is good is worthy of recommendation -- at least not without a trigger warning. Read Charles Lamb, I say. He is a superb writer, a great if eccentric stylist. He was a genuinely good, ethical and loveable person. Just know that not everything he ever wrote two hundred years ago still smells as sweet or is quite so harmless as was assumed. 

And Goldsmith? Dear Goldsmith.

"Our attachment to every object around us increases, in general, from the length of our acquaintance with it. 'I would not choose,' says a French philosopher, 'to see an old post pulled up with which I had been long acquainted.'" 

-- Goldsmith, Citizen of the World, Letter LXXIII

Just a year or two ago the world was much agitated by statues. People were pulling them down. Other, evil-minded people, ostensibly in defense of a statue, were prepared to riot and kill and run innocents down in the street with a car. Art is never politically neutral. Any that strives or claims to be tends to be both banal and bad or at the least a lie, which is just another way of saying the same thing. Why the fuss then when some memorial to mendacity comes crashing down? History is littered with broken statues. The Romans knocked the heads off of theirs as a matter of course. Worth reminding Americans that pulling down a statue or two was how we got started in the nation-building business. Then came the reaction to the Civil Rights Movement and suddenly there wasn't a hamlet south of Gettysburg that didn't think the picnic area really needed its own concrete Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Bloody Jackson, real pieces of work the pair o' them. Why? Seems the confederacy never died, it just fell. Hegemony falls hard. It's not the stone or brass that is regretted -- it's the loss of the lie.

And so it must be with books. Some books deserve -- at least metaphorically -- to be torn to pieces. Don't burn grandad's old copy of The Bell Curve, just be sure to note the curs its primary author lay down with and pay special attention to the fleas. Some books cease to be useful or true. No, sir, your textbooks from the eighteen seventies will not be of help to the deserving poor, and that medical reference work from before penicillin is actually quite dangerous. But some books disappear not because they are bad, or dangerous in the wrong way, or even problematic in the contemporary sense, but because nobody happened to be paying attention. One day I walk to the shelf in the bookstore where I work and I do not find Oliver Goldsmith. I check our recorded inventory and find not a whisper of his name. Ghosted. I check with distributors and I look online and I find nothing but the dreary dross of unreturnable fourth-rate reprints. It is in many ways, in a most important way, as though he never existed. When did that happen?! How had I not noticed before now?

Had I a mind to, I might make a serviceable display of books from members of Samuel Johnson's famous Club, or at least of many of the leading intellectual lights of Johnson's day. Boswell's great biography of course would sit at the center. Next to this the huge new hardcover from Yale of Johnson's selected works. Edmund Burke presents no problem. Hume, Adam Smith, come to that Voltaire and Rousseau, a new biography of Johnson's sovereign, George the Third, I could this minute lay hands on them all. Even if I saw any point in doing any such thing, I wouldn't frankly have the heart. Absent Oliver Goldsmith there would be no heart to be had.

If all one knew of Goldsmith was the "Goldy" encountered in Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson, one could be forgiven for thinking the man a fool, despite Dr. Johnson's persistent defense of Dr. Goldsmith's genius as a writer. I shouldn't say Boswell disliked the man, but he hardly did him justice. Poor, ugly, Irish, awkward, socially pretentious, and conversationally clumsy, I just think Goldsmith was hard for a gentleman of Boswell's background and experience to take altogether seriously. That said, my curiosity about Goldsmith is directly traceable to my interest in and affection for Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson.

My Goldsmith is secure. In addition to a couple of beautifully illustrated copies of his novel, The Vicar of Wakefield, I have four fat volumes of James Prior's The Works of Oliver Goldsmith. Originally published in 1837, my edition is from fifty years later. Not pretty in plain, brown boards, my Goldsmith is a sturdy friend that lives on the shelf next to other complete and much-loved if rather shabby sets of Charles Lamb and Leigh Hunt. I have no confidence that the contents of that bookcase will win many friends when I am gone. I certainly am glad of having found those books, for which in the case of the Goldsmith it seems I paid twenty bucks. Money very well spent indeed.

If Goldsmith's little novel is the best loved and easiest of his works to recommend, I think I am fondest of his Letters from a Citizen of the World to His Friend in the East, better known as simply Citizen of the World. Essays originally published in a newspaper and modeled on Montesquieu's Persian Letters, Goldsmith's 1760 book pretends to be a series of letters from a Chinese diplomat traveling in England and therefore free to comment on the eccentricities and barbarities of the West and the English specifically from an outsider's perspective. Problem right there for 21st century readers, not dissimilar to the fate of Lamb's essay on roast pork, although Goldsmith was certainly a more serious student of the information available on China and the Chinese to a British writer of his day, and far more concerned than Lamb to sound convincing. It's true that Goldsmith's is also a pantomime Chinese, but not I would argue intentionally disrespectful nor meant to be taken seriously as an impersonation -- no more than Montesquieu's Persian. Can I still in good conscience recommend both? I can and do -- conceding that I am neither Chinese nor Persian myself and can't speak for others.

Why should I though? With all the books in the world, why should I so regret the unavailability of this one? In Letter LXXIII, titled Life Endeared by Age, Goldsmith offers one of his innumerable little fables, this of an elderly man released from prison after fifty years only to petition the Emperor to be returned to his cell. Everyone he knew is dead. He himself is very near the end of his days. He wishes only to go back to the only home he knows.  Goldsmith continues:

"The old man's passion for confinement is similar to that we all have for life. We are habituated to the prison, we look round with discontent, are displeased with the abode, and yet the length of our captivity only increases our fondness for the cell. The trees we have planted, the houses we have built, or the posterity we have begotten, all serve to bind us closer to the earth, and embitter our parting. Life sues the young like a new acquaintance; the companion, as yet unexhausted, is at once instructive and amusing; its company pleases; yet, for all this, it is but little regarded. To us who are declined in years, life appears like an old friend; its jests have been anticipated in former conversation; it has no new story to make us smile, no new improvement with which to surprise; yet still we love it; destitute of every enjoyment still we love it; husband the wasting treasure with increasing frugality, and feel all the poignancy of anguish in the final separation."

Goldsmith was all of thirty when he wrote that.  I offer it as better evidence of his mellifluous and clear prose, his astonishing maturity of mind, and his deep and abiding humanity. Dead at only 45, the author left behind him a rich and varied work in essays, natural history, biography, history ancient and modern, plays, poetry and fiction. Two of his plays are still performed, I would stubbornly argue that his novel is still read, his essays and poetry still well worth pursuing. He was as well travelled as Boswell, as generous as Johnson, as articulate at least on the page as Burke. Oliver Goldsmith was what he might himself have laughingly called "a little great man," and as dear to generations of readers, and to me, as any of his friends and contemporaries.

When Goldsmith died, Johnson was outraged by the suggestion that his epitaph should be in English, himself writing the inscription for Goldsmith's stone in the more traditional and dignified Latin. With apologies then to Johnson's shade, I offer the reader a translation as a kindness:

"Oliver Goldsmith: poet, natural scientist, and historian, who left untouched almost no kind of writing and touched nothing which he did not enhance. Whether smiles were to be raised or tears, a powerful yet gentle master of the emotions; in inspiration lofty, lively, and versatile; in style, exalted, elegant, and graceful. With this monument the love of his companions, the loyalty of his friends, the veneration of his readers has honored his memory. Born in Ireland at Forney in the county of Longford, in a place called Pallas, on Nov. 29, 1731, he was educated in Dublin and died in London on April 4, 1774."

In another essay Goldsmith says, "As writers become more numerous, it is natural for readers to become more indolent," and that seems to me all too sadly true. There are so many more books and readers now than a writer of Johnson's day might ever have imagined. If it is not so easy as it was then to earn a living illiterately, it is certainly easier now to to never open an unwelcome book after school. And of new books, as I may have mentioned, there is now no end. A grown person could, if he, she, or they so choose, spend the full length of his, her, or their days reading nothing but new novels, one after the next, and presumably never see the end of 'em. There is also now a dominant school of thought among educators, librarians, and booksellers to which I can neither wholly subscribe nor entirely discount asserting that all books are basically equal, and that at least in the western democracies readers of all ages are free to read whatever they like, even to exclusion of whatever may once have constituted the canon of established classics. I get it. If all art is indeed political, there is something to be said for not insisting that anyone read books once popular at least in part for their conformity to established political and cultural narratives. Leibniz's assertion that this is indeed "the best of all possible worlds" is seemingly refuted every Tuesday by the carts full of speculative fiction, fantasy, and an unprecedented selection of serious literature with animal narrators, ghosts, faeries, aliens, and talking trees, to name just a few of the resurgent supernatural elements more popular now in print than I might ever have imagined possible thirty years ago. Ours would seem to be the age of the triumphantly specific, the influencer in the otherwise empty room, and the canon crowd-sourced online. 

Indolence may be an unfamiliar word to many of us now. I tend to read the word as "lazy" but in tailored clothes. I looked it up just to get a sense of its etymology and was struck that the Latin is a darker mix than I anticipated: "in" for without, plus "dolentem (nominative dolens)" which meant not interest but grieving, so in the absence of grief, if I'm reading that right. (Not for the first time I am reminded that, damn, ancient Rome was a brutal scene.) Readers are not then now without a care in the world and neither are they lazy so much as they are free from the burden, if I may say it so, of the dead. That can't be an altogether bad thing, can it? Presumably I am myself just as free to grieve the absence of Goldsmith from the shelves of the bookstore where I work and no one to judge me a dusty old darling that I should -- judgment being a word now more usually used as a cudgel than a compliment. 

Goldsmith in his wisdom counseled against making imaginary evils, "when we have so many real ones to encounter." Indeed we do. I shouldn't like to pick fights with my friends when real battles are at this moment being waged so brutally against sense, sovereignty, and innocents. I won't try to argue the merits of a Goldsmith's Vicar, or the charms of his Chinese imposture against for example a new novel told in the voice of an ass, a pig, and a horse, etc. I haven't read the latter. I understand it's superb. no one is waiting to hear just where I happen to stand on the quality of the quantity of new fiction I've been shelving. I'm sure if you like it it's good. All I argue is that it's a shame to miss so good a writer, and so good a soul as Goldsmith just because I can't at this time put a copy of his book in your hand. 

“As the reputation of books is raised not by their freedom from defect, but the greatness of their beauties, so should that of men be prized not for their exemption from fault, but the size of those virtues they are possessed of.” 

-- Goldsmith, The Vicar of Wakefield.

I offer here some very brief examples of Goldsmith's virtues not to dissuade anyone from shopping the carts of new books brought down Tuesday, but rather in the hope seeing him some day if not again in the bookstore's inventory then hopefully on the bookshelves of new friends -- to me, to him, and to English literature.

Friday, March 4, 2022

A Caricature

 


Policy and Goodness


"To wipe all tears from off all faces is a task too hard for mortals; but to alleviate misfortunes is often within the most limited power: yet the opportunities which every day affords of relieving the most wretched of human beings are overlooked and neglected with equal disregard of policy and goodness."
Samuel Johnson,  Rambler #107 (March 26, 1751)

I have a dear friend much addicted to narrative. The condition is by no means rare as nearly all human beings have it to one degree or another, but my friend being himself a novelist has it bad. While he remains willing to start nearly any book, his interest invariably flags in the absence of a story. He does not see the point. I do not read quite the same way, but I understand the need.

Just last night I set aside the fourth volume of six of Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson, because I simply had to know what happened to Coriolanus. Now this is silly. I have read and watched the Shakespeare play. I have read pretty deeply into Mommsen. I know this story. And yet last night I read to the end of that noble, awful man because Oliver Goldsmith was telling that story so well and so briefly that I had to go back to his History of Rome. I bought a handsome, two volume edition of this recently for entirely too much money. Mine was published in 1821 and rebound some time I would guess in the early days of the last century. The first edition appeared in 1769 and unlike many of dear Goldsmith's many projects, actually earned its author a profit. Mine is a thirteenth edition, published nearly fifty years after the author's death. Clearly it was once a popular book. Johnson was very flattering. He defended Goldsmith's history as far and away one of the most elegant and readable products of the author's pen -- that same pen that Johnson also said "ornamented whatever" it touched. 'Deed. I always set aside Boswell reluctantly, but what was wanted last night, Sir, was a story.

It is worth noting that as smoothly entertaining as Goldsmith's Rome is proving to be, his contemporary Edward Gibbon had considerably more to say in general and at length not because he was the greater writer but because his purpose was more complex and his scholarship obviously superior in every particular. Reading one however does not preclude the pleasure of reading the other. Each in his own way undertook to tell the truth as best he was able and neither failed for want of what the other possessed. What's more the subject was such, and has proved since to be big enough to accommodate more writers many times over now than all the surviving sources combined.  At my last go during my pandemic furlough I made it to volume six of eight in Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I can recommend it for many reasons, but not I think for the smoothness of his narrative or the simplicity of his style. There is always another way to tell a story honestly, and many ways to tell it well. Important to keep in mind that not every story is defined by the straight line of its telling, and not every life is worth reading for either its ultimate moral or its event.

For all his obvious labor in making his biography complete, to the modern reader of fiction, even of biography, Boswell's Johnson is an unfamiliar beast; thin at the front, swelling to enormous size as it goes, seemingly shapeless until it finally comes to the touchingly small end of its tale. There is more of 18th Century natural history to it -- though describing a man -- than the more familiar form we find in a Fielding novel, or even in a more traditional biography like Johnson's own The Life of Mr. Richard Savage -- itself a pretty weird story to a reader in the 21st Century. So for elegance of form, I can only suggest the reader look elsewhere. And yet everyone ought to read The Life of Samuel Johnson.

As an enthusiast of all things Boswell & Johnson, I should like nothing better than to tell some famous and funny Johnson stories, but there is no need. First, others have already told them better. Secondly, that is not my job in the book club. I am not the storyteller. That is Mr. Boswell. Neither am I an expert. I am just the host and where necessary, a background guy. That's what I do, if I am to do anything at all beyond ringing again my already resounding enthusiasm. I selected this book in part to break the habit of reading to just the one point and in just the one way: front to back, straight on from beginning to end, and faster, faster, as we go. There are so many other ways to read and so much pleasure to be had beyond traditional narratives! My arguments may not prove persuasive, but then I'm just an old bookseller, not a professional critic. I may not prove even so good an advocate as attorney Boswell. So be it. All I can really do is suggest, ask some questions, and answer others. There are always other, more usual book clubs. (Though I can think of few things more deadly than a book club the point and purpose of which would be to simply recapitulate the events described and then natter how like someone's uncle Sam Johnson seems. I have been to that book club before. All I could recommend was the wine.)

It seems I have made the rules and now must live with the consequences, to wit:

A member of my book club has asked me to explain Samuel Johnson's politics. Oh dear. This is no easy thing to do, even for a far better scholar than your humble and obedient servant, Madam, but I shall try.

When Samuel Johnson came to die in  December, 1784, the eruption of a volcano in Iceland the previous year had caused the hottest summer and the coldest winter in Britain in living memory -- a cause and effect better understood now than then. In August a Scots apothecary made the first balloon ascent in the UK. Astonishment ensued. What would be the United States of America was still operating none too successfully under The Articles of Confederation and wouldn't even convene the Constitutional Convention for another three years. Critic and essayist Leigh Hunt was born in October of the year Johnson died. Leigh Hunt would himself die a most High Victorian Gent of Letters in 1859 at seventy-four, the same age reached by Johnson. Junipero Serra, poet Phillis Wheatley, Denis Diderot, and the Comte de Saint Germain all died the same year as Johnson.

All of which is offered to suggest something of just how long Johnson has now in fact been dead. Put it another way, the world as Johnson knew it, and specifically politics as Johnson would have understood them are all now so remote from present definitions and parties as to be quite dead to us indeed. 

Like all things, politics tends to entropy, but interrupted by revolutions, personalities, and upsets not reduceable to scientific prediction, despite the noble efforts of Marx & Co. In my time I have seen the Republican Party transformed from the bulwark of big business and small government to a bear-pit for fanatics, fascists, freebooters, and boobies. I grew up with grandmas who kept a picture of FDR on the wall right next to a knocking Jesus. Meanwhile the Democratic Party they knew has largely devolved into what I can only describe as the Republican Party of my youth, but now with gays and bridge repairs. Doubtless there are pundits aplenty happy to explain these transformations but I do not myself feel qualified. I confess to having been taken by surprise more often than not since at least the first Clinton administration. I read history and the newspapers and I don't like to think I am inattentive to the politics of my own time, but the usual points of reference: left, right, progressive, conservative, are not terribly useful in discussing the politics of Dr. Johnson's day.

One of the unhappiest habits in the readers -- and many of the writers -- of history is the conscious or unconscious desire to make the dead fit into contemporary narratives. Someone once said that the whole thrust of the British private educational system was to make Roman senators into gentlemen and Greek philosophers into Anglicans. We Americans are no more immune to this than the British. If we are to have Jesus we really must insist that he wash more than his feet and not make a fuss in the visitor's gallery at the Stock Exchange. Lincoln has to either be a saint or a slaver, and so on. The past must either be made to conform to our present purpose or be recast as an entirely cautionary tale in which all the major actors were either equally awful or entirely superior to present party politics. This is history as a rhetorical devise, a series of competing narratives with little or no attempt to see the humanity in any of the dead save the ancestors we choose to venerate, often at the expense of not only the complexity of their circumstances but also of their characters. 

Samuel Johnson is born a little less than a decade into the 18th Century. The United Kingdom came into existence two years before Johnson's birth in 1709. As a baby he was famously touched "for the King's evil" by the last serving Stuart monarch, Queen Anne. Johnson grew up in an England still shaped in the previous century; a world preoccupied with the legitimacy of the Hanoverian succession, nojuring clergy, Jacobite risings, and an unsteady peace with "the Northern Kingdom." By the time Boswell met Johnson in the reign of King George III, most of the upsets and controversies of Johnson's youth were largely settled -- as were most of Samuel Johnson's political opinions. 

I don't know that Samuel Johnson ever voted. He was for most of his adult life a man without either property or a fixed address for any length of time. Unlike friend Boswell, Johnson was no aristocrat. Johnson was a poor man*. Even as he composed his great dictionary Johnson was frequently so embarrassed financially as to have no shirt either clean or sound enough in which to go out in public. If he ate like a bear all his life, he was often just as hungry as one. Such was not the qualified electorate in Georgian England. 

To be poor in 18th Century England was simply the way of things for most people and likely the will of God. Modern readers would do well to remember just here that for Johnson, God was everywhere in the affairs of men, and often nowhere to be found but in submission to His divine will, proper observance of His religion, and in supplication to His mercy. This may strike us as somewhat medieval, but where else was someone like Johnson to turn for consolation? Faith, hope, charity, and Hell define Johnson's religion. Add ambition, reason, and genius and one has gone a long way to defining his character. As for politics, there was precious little comfort for Johnson or any other poor man to be had there. Other than God, the only hope lay in reputation and connection.

Johnson's politics came from the insecurity he saw all around him. Good men went bust and died embarrassed and broken. His father did. Penury bent the ambitions of supremely intelligent young men like himself and sent them down from University before their time. Ambition in even so obviously talented a man as Goldsmith was bent to immediate needs. The poverty of medicine sent many a younger man, including Goldsmith to an early grave. Want and disability put good and talented people like his blind friend Anna Williams in the way of Johnson's charity, even when he himself had so little to give. Johnson always gave, even if he had to borrow other men's money to do so. ("... but the greatest of these is charity.") The only stability in Johnson's world came from faith, not politics, and the uniformity of faith was society's only bulwark against the indifference of power and the the meanness and greed of fallen man.  

There simply was no contest to be had, at least none worth having in Johnson's England, between what we would now define as the Right and the Left (that idea was probably born a few years after Johnson's death in the AssemblĂ©e nationale of Revolutionary France.) Instead there was the ongoing conflict between the competing interests of two gangs of gentry; the landed, agrarian Tories, and the more wide-ranging Whigs. The Tories were for God, King, and Country -- and in that order. In Johnson's day they'd only just given up, most of 'em, on the Stuarts and the divine right of kings. Change meant disorder to a Tory. Whigs, though every bit as conservative in vision, had been the rising men since at least the Glorious Revolution and their money was as likely to have come from sugar, tea, graft, and slaves as from their great, great grandfather's service to the Crown. Long out of power under the first two German Georges, under the Third, the Tories were making a come-back. Both parties were built from patronage, privilege, and plunder. Most of the Tories had just had their go at fortune-hunting further back along the bloodlines.

Johnson loathed the Whigs. To him they would always be the party of jobbers, snobs, atheists, and opportunists. Whigs made wars and fortunes, as he saw it, to serve themselves. They threatened the supremacy of his church and undermined the already lax morality of the day with their profligacy and indifference to tradition. An old Tory landlord might be ignorant as a hog (see Fielding) but he didn't seem so likely to starve his tenants to pay his tailors' bill or keep his coach. Tories, at least as Johnson saw the matter, lived at least as he did in fear of Hell.

Swift tells us that, “It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into.” Johnson thought hard, but he believed stubbornly. He saw no evidence for example that Voltaire's atheism ever fed a beggar or that Jefferson's Liberty freed a single slave. For all the elevation of Reason in the Augustan Age of English Letters, outside of what Johnson saw as the need for the individual to do right and good for the sake of his or her immortal soul, reason seemed to him sophistry. Where he saw the need was in the proof, reason in service of stability: in religion, monarchy, poetic form, philosophy, and manners. Necessity and the hope of immortality dictated Reason's right objects so far as Johnson was concerned. Like all true conservatives before and since, Johnson put little faith in either men or innovation. He hoped for better always, with the help of God's grace, but assumed the worst. The evidence of sin as he saw it was all around him, reeking of gin in the gutters and smelling to high heaven of mendacity in the corridors of power, redolent even in the rarified air of a King's court levee.

"Our image of happiness is indissolubly bound up with the image of the past," says Walter Benjamin, and there I think is as near as we may come to a definition of conservatism ancient and modern (and conservationism too, now I come to think of it.) Like most conservatives, Johnson saw little when he peered with his one good eye into the future, anticipating little less than the likelihood of hellfire. That he should have lived to see the likes of Rousseau and Tom Paine preach a new gospel of freedom and progress and the Rights of Man could have caused him nothing but impotent fury. Rascals! Scoundrels! atheists!!! No easy thing to turn an old bear from his way. 

Not just a case of the devil you know, either. Johnson's optimism was concentrated all in the good he found in the people around him, rich and poor, powerful and powerless, genius and blockheads. He believed in the nobility of good breeding and good fortune to safeguard the liberty of the citizen, the stability of a strong Monarch to check and reward the ambitions of good men, and the benevolence of a loving God to show mercy to the most grievous fault and save the sorriest sinner like himself. He also found great solace in the company he kept with his friends, his conscience, and his Savior. This is why he is still easy to love and admire, at least for me and in despite of the fact that I share neither his faith nor what for want of a better word I must call his politics. He reminds me that a good man need not always stand just where I do to see deeply into the hearts and minds of mankind or to leave the world better for his having been in it, if not entirely of it. He would certainly be the first to be glad of good company and always eager to make a friend. Thanks to Boswell's long and most flattering introduction, I cannot help but feel we might all find a friend in Sam Johnson, however little we might like his politics or ever stand just where he stood in that world long gone. There is an alchemy in that unlike any one might find in so common a thing as a novel.


*The year after his great dictionary was published, Johnson was arrested for debt and was forced to apply to the novelist Samuel Richardson for a loan, and not for the first nor the last time. Johnson did not experience any financial security until, age 53, he was granted a pension from the Crown in recognition of his literary achievements.