Wednesday, March 16, 2011


All roads lead to Samuel Johnson

I think Samuel Johnson would have been shocked that historians and literary scholars frequently refer to his era as the Age of Johnson. He was a deeply humble man, for all his great intellectual weight. His influence certainly lives on. Regarding which, I thought I was finished with my winter Johnson-Boswell reading project, but then I picked up some books at a library sale, and bought another stack at the local Goodwill.

From the library sale I brought home a book that looked good - Lapham Rising by Roger Rosenblatt - his first novel, set in the Hamptons, the tale of a man who has had it with society, particularly in the emblematic form of his billionaire neighbor and the gargantuan house he is having built. Our hero lives in a dilapidated seaside home next door, and exists in a mild state of crazy, talking to his dog, who talks back to him. He is a novelist who isn't writing. One of his novels is about a man who lives in an antiquarian bookshop. This is mentioned in passing, and I do wish Rosenblatt had chosen to elaborate, other than to have the main character say that this was a metaphorical theme, representing "...a mind that wanted to live in the past." (p.108) (That would be a novel I'd like to read.) But, back to Samuel Johnson. Our hero has given away all the books in his home, from a generous library accumulated by three generations of his family. Given them a few bags at a time to the local library. Except for the one book he feels is truly worthy: a slim volume, containing Johnson's long poem The Vanity of Human Wishes:

"...a single humble yet confident, self-aware yet not self-involved, brief yet eternally expansive book. This one I could not bring myself to toss. It made no unseemly noise. It did not plead for its life. It did not preen or strut. It was, in fact, the English language's supreme argument against noise, against pleading, preening, and strutting." (p.54)

Rosenblatt introduces Johnson much earlier in the novel, though. We first meet him on page 10: "Wealth heaped upon wealth, nor truth nor safety buys, /The dangers gather as the treasures rise: Dr. Johnson wrote that, and Dr. Johnson was always right." Dr. Johnson is always right is in fact one of the novel's leitmotifs. Which I didn't know until I began to read it, and was a lovely surprise. One small note - the ending of the book left me unsatisfied and a bit confused - I expected to turn over one more page and read the real ending - but overall, very good. A satirical send-up of certain members of the Hamptons summer set and their wealth, and one man's last stand against the hubris of it all.

Then, at Goodwill I found a coffee table book, The Mountains of Rasselas by Thomas Pakenham (Seven Dials reprint 1999). Originally published in 1959, and now reprinted with new material and color photographs by the author, this travelogue chronicles Pakenham's search for the truth behind Johnson's novel Rasselas, in the mountain ranges of Ethiopia. I've just started reading and must say I'm enjoying it thus far - a very young British academic sets off on an Indiana Jones-style adventure. His narrative lured me in from the very beginning:

"In May 1955 I had been dining in a Venetian Gothic house overlooking the Thames at Oxford. We had begun to talk of amusing places where we might spend the summer holidays after Schools. Abyssinia cropped up frequently in the conversation. The place had exciting associations for us all - was this not the land of Prester John and the Queen of Sheba, the birthplace of Evelyn Waugh's Black Mischief and Scoop? After Tibet, Abyssinia sounded the most exotic place for a holiday." (p.8)

A Byzantine scholar suggests he not merely ramble aimlessly, but instead mount a search for a mountain near Gondar called Wachni, a place never seen by Europeans, and the inspiration for Johnson's short novel Rasselas. Abyssinian kings would isolate their sons there, so they wouldn't get into trouble (or make trouble), until such time as an heir was needed to reign. In Johnson's novel, a prince and princess escape from their imprisonment in order to experience the world as it really is and discover if happiness in life is possible. (Short answer, according to Johnson: No.) Johnson wrote his novel after reading the travel accounts of two of his contemporaries. I read Rasselas a few months ago and loved both its spirit of inquiry and its moral conclusions. Now I'm 25 pages into Pakenham's account, and it promises greatness.

Johnson lives! I wonder where he'll turn up next?

Samuel Johnson is lurking at Goodwill? I need to drop by my local Goodwill more often!
Vicky, the Goodwill in Rockland is consistently good. Meaning whenever I stop in, I find a few truly wonderful things amidst the hundreds of unsaleable and unreadable (at least, to me...) books. Persistence!
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