|A New Kind of Human Story
copyright © 2005
in The Guardian
31 December 2005
Appreciatively reviewed by Nicholas Lezard
in these pages (December 17), the new edition of Johnson
on Savage, edited by Richard Holmes, is indeed very welcome.
In addition to its main contents, Dr Johnson's famous description
of the accursed poet in "An Account of the Life of Mr Richard
Savage, Son of the Earl of Rivers" (1744), the slim book
includes Johnson's three essays on biographical themes in the
Rambler and the Idler. For the inquirer into life-writing, this
makes it a very handy kit, because these three essays were reprinted
again and again. Johnson was very influential. But did he invent
Holmes in his introduction tells us that "Johnson
had championed English biography as a virtually new genre. He
had saved it from the medieval tradition of solemnly extended
hagiography, or the lifeless accumulations of 17th century biographical
Dictionaries." But for once I disagree with Holmes. Indeed
I think he disagrees with himself, since in the volume Defoe
on Sheppard and Wild in the same HarperCollins series, he has
biography set free by the genius of Daniel Defoe "to tell
a new kind of human story". So that takes us back to the
1720s at least. I think we could trace it further.
What was the newness of this kind of story?
What is being talked about is partly the choice of character:
Savage's life was the opposite of exemplary, and Johnson tries
not to skirt over the worst of his bad behaviour. Indeed he
gives us more than enough information for us to doubt that the
author has quite understood or faced up to the implications
of the story he is telling.
Was the illegitimate Savage persecuted by his
unfeeling mother, or was he persecuting her? Was he - a thought
Holmes certainly entertains - a stalker? The book worried Boswell.
It failed to convince John Clare, who wrote of it in 1824: "It
is a very interesting piece of biography, but the criticisms
are dictated by friendship that too often forgets judgment ought
to be one of the company." A modern delight in reading
between the lines ensures that Johnson will interest us either
way. He may fail as an advocate for his dead friend, but if
he does fail he engages our interest in his own motivation.
There was nothing unprecedented, however, in
writing a life of a character notable for his faults - even
in English, Bishop Burnet's life of Rochester had done that.
But Johnson, in his little essays on biography, makes a good
moral case against covering up a subject's faults: "If
we owe regard to the memory of the dead, there is yet more respect
to be paid to knowledge, to virtue, and to truth."
If history was typically expected to deal with
large events (remember that this was long before social history
took an interest in daily or private lives of common people),
biography seemed to be about small things. Some biographers
consciously attempted to cut out the trivia. Johnson loved and
recommended the telling detail that was revelatory of character.
A classical example he gives comes from Sallust's
account of Catiline, that "his walk was now quick, and
again slow" indicative of "a mind revolving something
with violent commotion". Johnson likes to learn of Luther's
friend Philip Melanchthon that "when he made an appointment,
he expected not only the hour, but the minute to be fixed, that
the day might not run out in the idleness of suspense".
Since Cranach painted Melanchthon's portrait, one may imagine
that he too came across this novel exactness when making an
Johnson thought that many of the large subjects
which had engaged biographers - lives of soldiers or ministers
- would prove of no lasting value and would never be read. He
suggested the learned might write of their own lives. He gives
a vivid thumbnail sketch of what it is like to find that you
have had a literary success.
And he tells what it is like to find that your
reputation is in decline: "If the author enters a coffee-house,
he has a box to himself; if he calls at a bookseller's, the
boy turns his back; and, what is most fatal of all prognosticks,
authors will visit him in a morning, and talk to him hour after
hour of the malevolence of criticks, the neglect of merit, the
bad taste of the age and the candour of posterity."
This kind of experience is part of our common
humanity. "Success and miscarriage have the same effect
on all conditions." So this was the sort of neglected material
that might form "very amusing scenes of biography".
And of course no one ever read these three Johnson essays with
more attention, or learned their lessons better, than Boswell.