Johnson and authority
The question of authority is a subject of almost all criticism devoted to the life and writing of Samuel Johnson. This book attempts to identify a specific kind of Johnsonian authority arising from a structure of memory governing most if not all of Johnson's writing, most clearly exemplified in the Lives of the Poets. In biography, authority and memory are functions of Johnson's narrative, especially in the various ways in which his engagement of the lives and writings of specific writers enables his reflection on history, literary history, and time. Within a complex nexus of different moral, political, linguistic, and historical discourses, the Lives, I will argue, constitutes (in the words of Pierre Nora) les lieux de memoire, 1 a sophisticated attitude toward time and historiography that newly contextualizes Johnson within eighteenth-century and modern discourses about fiction and history.
William Hamilton's much-quoted words on the death of Johnson – “He has made a chasm, which not only nothing can fill up, but which nothing has a tendency to fill up” 2 – is only one of the earliest expressions of the kind of unique and natural power that Johnson represented for his contemporaries, that commentators have grappled with ever since. This power was invariably seen as intellectual and moral. Drawing upon images of Milton's paradise and Johnson's own Happy Valley, Hester Thrale, for example, described Johnson's mind as “indeed expanded beyond the common limits of human nature, and stored with such variety of knowledge, that I used to think it resembled a royal pleasureground, where every plant, of every name and nation, flourished in the full perfection of their powers, and where, though lofty woods and falling cataracts first caught the eye, and fixed the earliest attention of beholders, yet neither the trim parterre nor the pleasing shrubbery, nor even the antiquated ever-greens, were denied a place in some fit corner of this happy valley. ” 3 And for Boswell, Johnson's intellectual power resided not only in the range and comprehensiveness of his knowledge