R

The Rambler British periodical, 1750-1752

Samuel Johnson stands at the crossroads between the Renaissance and the Modern period, and so played a crucial part in the development of the essay. There can be no doubt that Johnson found the essay an especially congenial literary form. As its origin in the French word essai suggests, the essay is an informal "attempt" to say something worthwhile. In an essay one was not promising much, only that one was trying; this more relaxed generic tone suited Johnson well. Above all, the essay as a literary form offered him freedom: it had no set agenda, no rules about topic, no prescribed length, and no required content.

Looking back, Johnson considered the achievements of Montaigne in the 16th century, of Francis Bacon in the 17th, and of Addison and Steele in the early 18th. When, however, his chance came to follow in the footsteps of his predecessors in the middle of the 18th century he chose instead to develop the essay in a somewhat new direction. The result was what James Boswell would later call "bark and steel for the mind," and what Walter Jackson Bate ( 1955) would describe as "the closest anticipation of Freud to be found in psychology or moral writings before the twentieth century."

Johnson's chance to do something significant with the essay form came after he had been at work for two or three years on his Dictionary, which would appear in 1755. Financially strapped, he was unable to keep up with his many expenses. At this fateful juncture he was approached by a trio of London booksellers. Edward Cave, John Payne, and Joseph Bouquet offered him the chance to become the author of a new set of periodical essays which they were hoping could match or surpass the earlier successes of the Tatler ( 1709-11) and Spectator ( 1711-12, 1714). Johnson was to be paid two guineas per essay, and there were to be two essays each week. This would provide him with four extra guineas each week, or with slightly over zoo guineas in extra annual income -- a not insignificant sum of money for a writer who only a year earlier had accepted the sum total of 15 guineas for the rights to his great poem The Vanity of Human Wishes. The offer from the booksellers was irresistible.

Johnson thus found himself in early March 1750 committed to producing two essays each week -- one to be published on Tuesday, the other on Saturday -- indefinitely. They were to address important issues of the day, though Johnson was by no means sure just what those would be. Consequently, he designated himself "the Rambler," undoubtedly to allow himself as much flexibility as possible when it came to choosing his subjects. However, as Steven Lynn ( 1992) has suggested, his title may also have been drawing attention to a religious meaning in his work. It is clear enough that Johnson conceived of himself as a pilgrim soul on a journey toward God. But it is equally clear that he did not have the same sense of clear direction which had guided those who thought of themselves as pilgrims in earlier times. It was his lot here on earth to be but a rambler.

Johnson eventually brought his project to a conclusion in Rambler no. 208, published on 14 March 1752, just before the death of his beloved wife Tettie on 17 March 1752. During the two years that he devoted to the Rambler there were only four occasions when he allowed someone else to compose one of the essays, though others had been responsible for a few small parts of other essays.

Apparently the Rambler was not a great financial success initially. The sale of individual folio numbers, we are told, never went much beyond 500. However, even when they were first being published in pamphlet form some of the individual essays did enjoy a much wider circulation than the numerical count would indicate, for they were reprinted in country newspapers and monthly magazines. Individual numbers of the Rambler sold for two pence each, so simple arithmetic would tell us that Johnson's financial backers at first lost money on this venture. However, it is also true that, in one of the odder turns of literary history, the reputation of the Rambler began to grow almost immediately among the British reading public. Not long after Johnson ceased publishing there was enough demand for a collected edition of the Rambler essays, printed in a duodecimo edition. Before Johnson's death in 1784, there were to be ten authorized editions of the collected Ramblers, and even more by the end of the 18th century.

Though Johnson's reputation as the author of the Rambler papers would soon be overshadowed by his great achievement with the Dictionary, most members of the brilliant social and intellectual set surrounding him in his later years first came to know and admire him as "the Rambler." Young James Boswell is but one instance of someone who was not looking for "Dictionary" Johnson when he came to London in 1762: he was instead seeking out the author of the Rambler papers.

It is not easy to assess Johnson's overall achievement in the Rambler essays. The 204 essays mostly or entirely by him cover a wide range of topics and ideas. To a great extent, what any

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Encyclopedia of the Essay
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Editor's Note vii
  • Advisers ix
  • List of Entries xiii
  • Preface xix
  • A 1
  • C 137
  • D 203
  • E 239
  • F 273
  • G 319
  • H 373
  • I 419
  • J 425
  • K 443
  • L 457
  • M 503
  • N 591
  • O 611
  • P 629
  • Q 683
  • R 685
  • S 725
  • T 829
  • U 865
  • V 871
  • W 883
  • Y 911
  • Z 915
  • Indexes 925
  • General Index 961
  • Notes on Advisers and Contributors 981
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