Samuel Johnson after Deconstruction: Rhetoric and the Rambler

Samuel Johnson after Deconstruction: Rhetoric and the Rambler

Samuel Johnson after Deconstruction: Rhetoric and the Rambler

Samuel Johnson after Deconstruction: Rhetoric and the Rambler


"My other works are wine and water," said Samuel Johnson to Samuel Rogers, "but my Rambler is pure wine."Some critics have disagreed, labeling the essays uneven and dismissing the bulk of them as hastily concocted hackwork by a writer taking a break from or earning money for a more important project- the Dictionary of the English Language. Yet, Steven Lynn, in the first book-length study of The Rambler,resoundingly contradicts such critics; combining deconstruction and other current methods with eighteenth-century rhetorical theories, Lynn refutes conventional critical wisdom among Johnsonians, asserting that the 208Rambleressays form a coherent whole. Lynn argues that a controlling tenet in the series is that "we are each and every one ramblers, wandering and searching for some stable meaning and satisfaction, which will inevitably elude us in this world. By confronting this absence, Johnson (like a deconstructive theologian) leads us repeatedly to acknowledge the necessity of faith."For Lynn, furthermore, the unifying thread running through the series is expressed in the prayer Johnson composed as he embarked on the journey of The Rambler:"Almighty God,... without whose grace all wisdom is folly, grant, I beseech Thee, that in this my undertaking thy Holy Spirit may not be witheld from me, but that I may promote thy glory, and the Salvation both of myself and others." As Lynn shows, though Johnson anticipates deconstruction, his controlling evangelistic aim differs profoundly and instructively from it.


Whatever we experience, we find Johnson has been there before us, and is meeting and returning home with us.

-- W. Jackson Bate, Samuel Johnson

Shortly after the Rambler essays began to appear, Mrs. Samuel Johnson reportedly told her husband, "I thought very well of you before; but I did not imagine you could have written anything equal to this" (Boswell 1:210). Tetty Johnson has not been remembered for her critical acumen; if we think of her at all, it is most likely in the terms of Garrick's portrait: "very fat, with a bosom of more than ordinary protuberance, with swelled cheeks of florid red, produced by thick painting, and increased by the liberal use of cordials; flaring and fantastick in her dress, and affected in both her speech and behaviour" (Boswell 1:99). But Johnson, Boswell tells us, had "great confidence" in Tetty's "judgment and taste" (1:210), and he later agreed that these essays exhibited a remarkable concentration of his powers: "My other works are wine and water," he said to Samuel Rogers, "but my Rambler is pure wine" (Rogers 10).

This judgment, by perhaps the eighteenth century's least and most authoritative critics, was shared by many in Johnson's day.

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