The Gargantuan and Terrifying Lexicographer

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), January 25, 2009 | Go to article overview

The Gargantuan and Terrifying Lexicographer


Byline: James Srodes, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

It should have been one of the great meetings in the evolution of the English language. In the late 1750s, Dr. Samuel Johnson, famed for his monumental Dictionary of the English Language, attended a London meeting of a charity that sought to teach orphaned and abandoned children of all races throughout the American colonies. Another attendee was Benjamin Franklin, equally famous for his electricity discoveries and his authorship of the internationally popular Poor Richard's Almanack.

There they were: The codifier of the mother tongue of Britain and the man who became the most creative force in altering that language into a uniquely American cultural force. The two men even shared a common best friend. For 20 years, printer William Strahan had provided Franklin with a steady supply of printing type, presses and support for his chain of newspapers. At the same time, Strahan had nearly bankrupted himself during the nine years it took Johnson to create the huge 2,500-page two volumes of 42,000 words and 116,000 illustrative quotations that established English as an eventual standard of global communications.

Franklin could not resist a nudge at Johnson's expense. I never trust a man who can only spell a word one way, he is supposed to have quipped. With some justice, Johnson was offended. Since he despised Americans in general and fiercely opposed the independence struggle by the colonies, Johnson spent the next 15 years of Franklin's stay in London refusing ever to meet him again and slandering him at every turn within the ever-expanding circle of mutual friends.

As we approach the 300th anniversary of Johnson's birth, it is tempting to daydream about what might have happened if the two great language experts had joined forces. One of the problems in taking the speculation any distance is that the many-layered and contradictory personalities of the two giants get in the way of considering how language drives cultures and shapes national identities. It is not just a cliche that Britain and America are two nations divided by a common language. Johnson and Franklin personify that division.

Not surprisingly in a tercentenary year, there are no fewer than a dozen new books out in commemoration. In addition to the two biographies reviewed here, there are reprints of Johnson's famed Dictionary, the justly famed six-volume biography done by his friend James Boswell and even a life of Hester Thrale, Johnson's legendary friend who is supposed to have provided him with masochistic bondage and whipping whenever the great man felt a bit despondent.

The two biographies before us are two very different approaches to putting some context around the life of this gargantuan (literally) personality who was the great lexicographer of his day, that day's leading aphorist, political journalist, essayist and moralist; a rescuer of the work of William Shakespeare, a campaigner against slavery and a foe of American independence. At the same time, Johnson was a rude bully of revolting table manners, indifferent personal cleanliness, grotesque facial and physical features, alarming tics and noises and enough psycho-sexual problems to accommodate an entire separate chapter of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders of the American Psychiatric Association. And he hated the Scots and generally despised anyone who was not English.

Both books are meticulously researched and well written. Jeffery Meyers is a prolific biographer whose previous subjects have ranged from Katherine Mansfield, D. H. Lawrence, Joseph Conrad, Edgar Allen Poe, Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway to Humphrey Bogart and Gary Cooper. As his title suggests, he emphasizes the daunting roadblocks Johnson had to overcome to achieve the astonishing range of literary creations he produced during his lifetime. Deaf, nearly blind, scarred by smallpox lesions, grossly obese, manic-depressive, alcoholic, Samuel Johnson on a good day was terrifying. …

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