English 435: Seminar
Johnson's Moral Essays
Tues, Thurs 1:10 - 2:30
Samuel Johnson was the dominant literary figure in later 18th-century England, so central to his time that the period has ever since been called the Age of Johnson. He was a poet, a great classical scholar, maker of the first important English dictionary, author of the "oriental tale" Rasselas, and the most brilliant conversationalist in an age of memorable conversation. (His conversation survives, just as it was heard around the dinner tables of 18th-century London, in Boswell's great Life of Samuel Johnson.)
At the center of Johnson's literary achievement are his "moral essays," his contribution to the eighteenth-century genre of the periodical essay. As invented by Steele and Addison in The Tatler and The Spectator, these were short, topical, and very often satiric sketches of life in early eighteenth century London, meant to show readers how to imagine themselves as citizens of a new urban society in which money and commerce, rather than the older customs of a rural or agrarian England, were becoming the dominant forces in an emergent modernity.
At midcentury, however, Johnson made over the periodical essay as modern version of "wisdom literature": a searching examination of human moral psychology and the pitfalls and self-delusions to which every mortal man and woman -- and, as he well knew, Samuel Johnson -- is doomed in a world in which even the wisest see as through a glass darkly.
Cathedral in Lichfield, Johnson's birthplace
The great monument of Johnson's moral writings is his essay series The Rambler, to which we will devote most of our attention. But in two other series, The Idler and The Adventurer, he remains at his incomparable best as a companion of those who are seeking to understand themselves and their relation to the particular human society into which they were born. We will read selections from those series as well.
At the heart of Johnson's moral writings lies a conviction that the true subject of literature is a universal human moral nature that remains the same underneath what he once calls the "adventitious and separable disguises" of historical period, nation, or social class. A typical Rambler or Idler is based on a kind of wager: if we come to recognize ourselves in the mirror of Johnson's writing, we will have done so only by assenting to his own notion of a universal human nature:
I'm quoting this passage for a reason. Johnson's moral writings are "hard," and it takes weeks of patient close analysis to learn to read his style -- it's called Ciceronian, or "periodic" prose -- comfortably. If you're thinking about taking the seminar, you should see what you can do with the passage. As you might have noticed just from this paragraph, reading Johnson means expanding your vocabulary. If you don't know exactly what he means by adventitious, for instance, or fortune, or discriminations and peculiarities, or heedful, or quick, or obstructed by danger, the whole thing isn't going to make much sense to you. And even if you do understand all those words, there's still the problem of following Johnson through the twists and turns of his magisterial syntax. It's a real literary and intellectual discipline.
The good news is that English majors who are comfortable with earlier English literature become magically adept at reading Johnson's prose within a few weeks. It's in a way like learning a new language, and then discovering that you've been speaking that language all along and didn't know it. If you can read Shakespeare or Milton or Jane Austen or Browning without undue difficulty, you won't have any problem with the seminar. If those authors seem "difficult" to you, or if you've had no experience at all reading earlier English literature, you should probably think twice about taking the course.
The text we'll use is Samuel Johnson: Selected Essays, edited by David Womersley. It's a Penguin paperback with decent notes, to which I'll be adding a great deal of background material as we go along.
Assignments will be short. There will be quizzes every week, to make sure that everyone is putting in time with the OED and close analysis of Johnson's prose. The final weeks will be given over to seminar papers: 25-minute oral presentations that, as each concentrates on a different aspect of Johnson's literary career and the periodical essay as a genre, will contribute to a sum total of knowledge for the class, and (2) will provide the basis of a longer (15-page) seminar paper to be handed in by that student on the last day of class.