England in the Age of Johnson

England in the Age of Johnson

Undergraduate Honors Seminar

W.C. Dowling, Department of English

    The main text for this seminar will be Boswell's great Life of Johnson, a biography of the man whose mind and writings dominated English literary life during the last half of the 18th century. Johnson was a major writer and a brilliant conversationalist who drew around himself the greatest minds and talents of the age: Edmund Burke, Oliver Goldsmith, Edward Gibbon, David Garrick, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and others too numerous to mention.

    As a consequence, the Life of Johnson gives an image not only of Johnson but his age: the literary world of London, trade and commerce, medicine, law, the universities, the army and navy, politics and religion. Our method in this seminar will be to treat the age of Johnson "phenomenologically" -- that is, to to try to enter it as fully as possible as a world substantially and fascinatingly different from our own.

    We will read the Life of Johnson together slowly, going over the major periods of Johnson's long career. When we have established a common base of knowledge, individual students will be asked to do written projects and class presentations on the aspects of 18th-century life that lie in the immediate background of the story.

Medicine: what was it like to be sick in the 18th century? What could doctors do for a sick person? What were their theories of disease?

"I saw Roux perform the operation of Lithotomy last week. The patient was 50 years of age. The operation was with the gorgeret and lasted not quite a minute and a half. The incision was small and great force required to extract the stone which weighed about 1 1/2 oz. Two days after the patient was seized with pain in the belly and delirium and died."

               -- An 18th-century medical student writing to a friend

Religion: what were the varieties of religious belief that divided people from one another in Johnson's society? Who were the Anglicans? the Dissenters? the Deists? How did religious people generally react to the emerging picture of a "world without God": the new Enlightenment notion of a purely material universe leaving no room for a Creator or a realm of transcendental value?

An 18th-century harvest scene. We will study the "agricultural revolution" that took place in Johnson's England: the new methods of tilling and fertilizing the fields, crop rotation, and livestock breeding that provided an ample food supply for the great growth in population that began around 1750.

Literature: how was the widespread availability of printed material altering social relations in an England where more people than ever before could read? How did the idea of "literature," still largely based on an older manuscript culture and the idea of "polite letters" as aristocratic expression, alter under these circumstances? What part did Johnson himself play in bringing about the change?

    A complete list of research topics will be handed out at the first meeting of the seminar. WCD's other course in spring semester 1998 will be English 219. Click on the link to see a description of the method used in the course.

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