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Title: Samuel Johnson and the vocation of the author
Author: Hitchens, Daniel
ISNI:       0000 0004 7430 4859
Awarding Body: University of Oxford
Current Institution: University of Oxford
Date of Award: 2016
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Much has been written about Samuel Johnson as a Christian, and much about him as an author; this study is about where the two meet, in the idea of the literary vocation. Though Johnson only uses the word ‘vocation' a handful of times, it holds both the quotidian sense of a job and the more exalted notion of a divine call, a tension which informs Johnson's thinking. I begin with Johnson's development as a religious writer, influenced by William Law's contention that any form of life can be devout and holy, and by Bernard Mandeville's unsentimental candour. Johnson's writing bears the marks of both. He revised Irene, for instance, to make it less overtly Christian: a reminder that Johnson's religious convictions bring an invisible pressure to bear on apparently secular works. In his early years on the Gentleman's Magazine Johnson develops the principle that authorship, being a public act, carries great responsibilities. It is, in fact, a vocation, and unpacking this concept takes up Chapter 2. Johnson sees writing as a potential form of public service, adding that a solitary writer 'naturally sinks from omission to forgetfulness of social duties'. Too few commentators have grasped that Johnson sees morality in social terms - as a matter of answering the needs of others, according to one's place in an order overseen by divine providence. But again and again he refers to the human need 'to seek from one another assistance and support' (Rambler 104). Instances of mutual help 'by frequent reciprocations of beneficence unite mankind in society and friendship'. Johnson's well-known emphasis on friendship is only one expression of this deeper sense that society is held together by trust; and therefore, by the truth. Writers' communication of truth defines their own social duties. While Johnson can sound close to Shaftesbury when he writes of mankind's sociability, there is really a significant gap between them, because Johnson's view of human nature is more jaded. He expects people to hurt each other for the same reasons they help each other; and he recognises a strong tendency towards pride and superiority - especially among writers, who are tempted to cut themselves off from society. Chapter 3 deals in more depth with a writer's social role, which is simply expressed as the ability to put the truth memorably. Borrowing from a tradition which stretches back to Seneca at least, Johnson believes that a writer becomes a 'benefactor of mankind' by putting the useful, but readily forgotten, principles of the good life into memorable forms. Drawing on Locke's account of the memory, and deviating from Locke's account of moral action, he suggests that literature has a power to move the reason and the passions at once - hence his demand that poetry be both true and pleasurable. While this resembles the Horatian formula of dulce et utile, Johnson added to it a sense of writers' and readers' experience of the text: how ‘impressions' are transferred from the world, via the writer, to the text, and so to the reader. Learning how to persuade the audience, however, necessitates first-hand acquaintance with the world. Hence the subjects of Chapters 4 and 5, which are pride and humility respectively. Pride separates the author from the social world, making them ineffectual and unable to communicate truth. The 'Lives' of Swift and Milton establish this partly through their ridicule of the two subjects: though Johnson did not think ridicule established truth, it did restore a balance upset by an author's singularity. 'Singularity' is the word Johnson uses to encapsulate Swift's faults: he was 'fond of singularity, and desirous to make a mode of happiness for himself, different from the general course of things and order of Providence'. Milton, too, is condemned for his arrogance - but even more in order to correct the idolatry of his admirers. Johnson believes that Milton is being written about with absurd reverence, and so puts him back in his place - as just another member of society, with a role to fulfil. Accepting that place involves a measure of humility. The question of the 'dignity of literature', a contested point during the nineteenth century, was alive in Johnson's time, and through his associations with what he himself called 'Grub Street', he lived and worked among many writers who might be thought undignified. Yet in the obscurity of the hacks Johnson found something to praise - an industrious, humble service opposed to the 'letter'd arrogance' of self-satisfied authors. '[T]he humble author of journals and gazettes must be considered as a liberal dispenser of beneficial knowledge' (Rambler 145). By stooping to be merely useful, journalists become great. Particularly in the Journey to the Western Islands, Johnson divests himself of authorial dignity, drawing attention to his own mistakes and omissions. Such a humdrum view of the writer's role, which placed the emphasis on the reader, put Johnson at odds with most of the prominent Romantics - and the scale of their revulsion from Johnson needs two chapters to be dealt with. Chapter 6 argues that their critique, especially that of Hazlitt and Coleridge, was above all about the question of the writer's vocation: and for that reason, Shakespeare was the most contested ground - for Coleridge, Johnson's Shakespeare criticism was impertinent 'filth' aimed at 'the greatest man that ever put on and put off mortality'. But that was exactly the kind of idolatrous view of authorship - what Hazlitt called approvingly 'overstrained enthusiasm' - which Johnson wanted to challenge. However, many of the Romantics' criticisms misrepresented Johnson; he was a more flexible thinker than they realised. In a final chapter, I look at the aftermath of the Romantics: how their accusation that Johnson was too narrow and bigoted to understand Shakespeare is echoed in Macaulay, and even in sympathetic readers like Matthew Arnold, and has dogged Johnson all the way to the present day. And I point out that the Romantic exaltation of the author has faced its own backlash, in ways that suggest Johnson might have seen more clearly than the Romantics thought.
Supervisor: Johnston, Freya Sponsor: Wolfson Foundation
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available