Reading Essays: An Invitation

By G. Douglas Atkins | Go to book overview

Turning Inside Out
Samuel Johnson’s “The Solitude of the Country”

Dr. Samuel Johnson … didn’t persuade you; he just told you. There
was no arguing with him. But he did it in such a bluff way, appealing
to you as the sensible fellow that you really are, that nobody could take
offence. He is never the “superior person” that Addison was: he never
talks down to you. [H]e is not preaching tolerance and understanding,
he is exhibiting them, not without humour.

—Bonamy Dobrée, English Essayists

DR. JOHNSON’S ESSAYS are much closer to Bacon’s than to Montaigne’s. They show next to none of the latter’s self-expressiveness while based in and deriving from the latter’s English, and Anglican, proclivity for balance. You can find no more originality of thought or feeling than you can “enthusiasm.” They are public rather than private, their truth general and common instead of individual and particular. They make not for fun reading, but they do—still—“furnish … mankind with the two noblest of things, which are sweetness and light” (Swift, The Battle of the Books 368).

Their author was a sort of Renaissance man of letters: poet, critic, dictionary maker, maker of the fictional tale we know as Rasselas, itself composed of narrative essays. Samuel Johnson wrote journalistic essays for The Rambler, penned The Idler papers for The Universal Chronicle or Weekly Gazette, and wrote for Hawkesworth’s Adventure and The Gentleman’s Magazine. As a contributor of essays to (emerging) periodicals, Johnson deserves mention alongside Addison and Steele, who certainly paved the way for his more

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