Abyssinia's Samuel Johnson: Ethiopian Thought in the Making of an English Author

Abyssinia's Samuel Johnson: Ethiopian Thought in the Making of an English Author

Abyssinia's Samuel Johnson: Ethiopian Thought in the Making of an English Author

Abyssinia's Samuel Johnson: Ethiopian Thought in the Making of an English Author


As a young man, Samuel Johnson, one of the most celebrated English authors of the eighteenth century, translated A Voyage to Abyssiniaby Jeronimo Lobo, a tome by a Portuguese missionary about the country now known as Ethiopia. Far from being a potboiler, this translation left an indelible imprint on Johnson. Demonstrating its importance through a range of research and attentive close readings,Abyssinia's Samuel Johnsonhighlights the lasting influence of an African people on Johnson's oeuvre.

Wendy Laura Belcher uncovers traces of African discourse in Johnson's only work conceived for the stage, Irene; several of his short stories; and, of course, his most famous fiction,The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia. Throughout, Belcher provides a much needed perspective on the power of the discourse of the other to infuse European texts. Most pointedly, she illuminates how the Western literary canon is globally produced, developing the powerful metaphor of spirit possession to suggest that some texts in the European canon are best understood asenergumens-texts that are spokenthrough. Her model of discursive possession offers a new way of theorizing transcultural intertextuality, in particular how Europe's others have co-constituted European representations. Drawing on sources in English, French, Portuguese, and Gthe conventional wisdom on Johnson's work, from theinspiration for the name Rasselas and the nature of Johnson's religious beliefs to what makes Rasselas so strange.

A rich monograph that fuses eighteenth-century studies, comparative literature, and postcolonial theory,Abyssinia's Samuel Johnsonadds a fresh perspective on and a wealth of insights into the great, enigmatic man of letters.


One evening in 2002, I visited some Ethiopian friends at their Los Angeles apartment. We were to have a meal together in honor of an African journalists’ association. I began chatting with Bekele, a man in his late fifties who had been an outspoken critic of several Ethiopian governments, with the prison sentences to prove it. the author of many antigovernment newspaper articles, Bekele was a widely acknowledged master of the barbed opacity that has been the signature of the best Ethiopian writing for centuries.

We talked for a while of politics, but he then asked what I was currently reading. I replied, “Samuel Johnson.” Bekele gave me a puzzled look, and I was not surprised. He had been educated in the Ethiopian capital in the 1950s and 1960s, so I did not expect him to know the eighteenth-century English author—the redoubtable compiler of the one of the first dictionaries of the English language, the distinguished founder of modern literary criticism in English, the famous author of some of the eighteenth century’s most important texts, and the object of perhaps the greatest biography ever written. But when I began to describe Johnson’s vital place in English letters and mentioned his biographer James Boswell, Bekele’s face lit up.

“Oh, I know him!” he said. “We read this man in school. He wrote a very good book about Ethiopia, Rasselas.” I expressed surprise that he had read Rasselas (Johnson’s fiction of an Ethiopian prince who left his confinement among the royal heirs to study how best to live happily) and astonishment that he should think a European author had written anything good about Ethiopia. But Bekele insisted it was true.

“This book,” he explained to me with some satisfaction, “it is very Ethiopian.”

I had opened my mouth to argue with him, to assert that Rasselas had little to do with Ethiopia and was a paradigmatic orientalist text, when I suddenly thought: What if there was something radical and important about the grammar of Bekele’s statement? He did not say that Johnson was a great white writer who had managed, where other Europeans had failed, to capture the Ethiopian essence. He did not say that Rasselas was a good representation of Ethiopia. He said that Rasselas was Ethiopian.

In many ways, Bekele’s comment represents a typically Ethiopian discursive move, reflecting the attitude of a cultural system that still believes itself the center of the universe, the home of the Garden of Eden, and the chosen people of God. All good things must be, by definition, Ethiopian. I had been aware of such beliefs before, as when, in a lengthy interview, the poet laureate Tsegaye Gebre Medhin . . .

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