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SAMUEL JOHNSON, LL. D.
To write the Life of him who excelled all mankind in writing the lives of others, and who, whether we consider his extraordinary endowments, or his various works, has been equalled by few in any age, is an arduous, and may be reckoned in me a presumptuous task.
Had Dr. Johnson written his own Life, in conformity with the opinion which he has given, that every man's life may be best written by himself; had be employed in the preservation of his own history, that clearness of narration and elegance of language in which he has embalmed so many eminent persons, the world would probably have had the most perfect example of biography that was ever exhibited. But although he at different times, in a desultory manner, committed to writing many particulars of the progress of his mind and fortunes, he never had persevering diligence enough to form them into a regular composition. Of these memorials a few have been preserved ; but the greater part was consigned by him to the flames, a few days before his death,
As I had the honour and happiness of enjoying his friendship for upwards of twenty years; as I had the scheme of writing his life constantly in view; as he was well apprised of this circumstance, and from time to time obligingly satisfied my enquiries, by communicating to me the iocidents of his early years; as I acquired a facility in recollecting, and was very assiduous in recording, his conversation, of which the extraordinary vigour and vivacity constituted one of the first features of his character; and as I have spared no pains in obtaining materials concern
ing him, from every quarter where I could discover that they were to be found, and have been favoured with the most liberal communications by his friends; I flatter myself that few biographers have entered upon such a work as this, with more advantages; independent of literary abilities, in which I am not vain enough to compare myself with some great pames who have gone before me in this kind of writing.
Since any work was announced, several Lives and Memoirs of Dr. Johnson have been published, the most voluminous of which is one compiled for the booksellers of London, by Sir John Hawkins, Knight, a man, whom, during my long intimacy with Dr. Johnson, I never saw in his company, I think, but once, and I am sure not above twice. Johnson might have esteemed him for his decent, religious demeanour, and his knowledge of books and literary history; but from the rigid formality of his manners, it is evident that they never could have lived together with companionable ease and familiarity: nor had Sir John Hawkins that nice perception which was necessary to mark the finer and less obvious parts of Johnson's character. His being appointed one of his executors, gave him an opportunity of taking possession of such fragments of a diary and other papers as were left; of which, before delivering them np to the residuary legatee, whose property they were, he endeavoured to extract the substance. In this he has not been very successful, as I have found upon a perusal of those papers, which have been since transferred to me. Sir John Hawkins's ponderous labours, I must acknowledge, exhibit a farrago, of which a considerable portion is not devoid of entertainment to the lovers of literary gossiping; but besides its being swelled out with long unnecessary extracts from various works, (even one of several leaves from Osborne's Harleian Catalogue, and those not compiled by Johnson, but by Oldys,) a very small part of it relates to the person who is the subject of the book; and, in that, there is such an inaccuracy in the statement of facts, as in so solemu an author is hardly excusable, and certainly makes bis narrative very unsatisfactory. But what is still worse, there is throughout the whole of it a dark uncharitable cast, by which the most vofavourable construction is put upon almost every circuinstance in the character and conduct of my illustrious friend; who, I trust, will, by a true and fair delineation, be vindicated both from the injurious misrepresentations of this author, and from the slighter aspersions of a lady who once lived in great intimacy with him.
There is, in the British Museum, a letter from Bishop Warburton to Dr. Birch, on the subject of biography; which, though I am aware it may expose me to a charge of artfully raising the value of my own work, by contrasting it with that of which I have spoken, is so well conceived and expressed, that I cannot refrain from here inserting it:
“I SHALL endeavour, (says Dr. Warburton,) to given you what batisfaction I can in any thing you want to be satisfied in any subject of Milton, and an extremely glad you intend to write his life. Alinost all the life-writers we have had before Toland and Desmaiseaux, are indeed strange insipid creatures; and yet I had rather read the worst of them, than be obliged to go through with this of Milton's, or the other's life of Boileau, where there is such a dull, heavy succession of long quotations of disinteresting passages, that it makes their method quite nauseous. But the verbose, tasteless Frenchman seems to lay it down as a principle, that every life must be a book, and what's worse, it proves a book without a life; for what do we know of Buileau, after all his tedi. ous stuff? You are the only one, (and I speak it without a compliment,) that by the vigour of your stile and sentiments, and the real importance of your materials, have the art, (which one would imagine no one could have missed,) of adding agreements to the most agreeable subject in the world, which is literary history."
“ Nov. 24, 1737." Instead of melting down my materials into one mass, and constantly speaking in my own person, by which I might have more merit in the execution of the work, I have resolved to adopt and evlarge upon the excellent plan of Mr. Mason, in his Memoirs of Gray. Wherever narrative is necessary to explain, connect, and supply, I furnish it to the best of my abilities; but in the chronological series of Johnson's life, which I trace as distinctly as I can, year by year, I produce, wherever it is in my power, his owo minutes, letters, or conversation, being convinced that this mode is more lively, and will make my readers better acquainted with him, than even inost of those were who actually knew him, but could know him only partially ; whereas there is here an accumulation of intelligence from various points, by which his character is more fully understood and illustrated.
Indeed I cannot conceive a more perfect mode of writing any man's life, than not only relating all the most important events of it in their order, but ioterweaving what he privately wrote, and said, and thought; by which mankind are enabled as it were to see him live, and to “ live o'er each scene” with him, as he actually advanced through the several stages of his life. Had his other friends been as diligent and ardent as I was, he might have been almost entirely preserved. As it is, I will venture to say that he will be seen in this work more completely than any man who has ever yet lived.
And he will be seen as he really was; for I profess to write, not his panegyric, which must be all praise, but his Life: which, great and good as he was, must not be supposed to be entirely perfect. To be as he was, is indeed subject of panegyric enough to any man in this state of being ; but in every picture there should be shade as well as light, and when I delineate him without reserve, I do what he bimself recommended, both by his precept and his example.
“ If the biographer writes from personal knowledge, and makes haste to gratify the pubic curiosity, there is danger lest his interest, his fear, his gratitude, or his tenderness, overpower his fidelity, and tempt him to conceal, if not to jovent. There are many who think it an act of piety to hide the faults or failings of their friends even when they can no longer suffer by their detection ; we therefore see whole ranks of characters a dorned with uniform panegyric, and not to be known froin one another
but by extrinsic and casual circumstances. •Let me remember, (says Hale,) when I find myseif inclined to pity a criminal, that there is likewise a pily due to the country. If we owe regard to the memory of the dead, there is yet inore respect to be paid to kuowledge, to virtue, and to truth."
What I consider as the peculiar value of the following work, is, the qualitity it contains of Johnsou's conversation ; which is universally acknowledged to have been eminently instructive and entertaining; and of which the specimens that I have given upon a former occasion, bare been received with so much approbation, that I have good grounds for supposing that the world will not be indifferent to more ample communications of a similar nature.
That the conversation of a celebrated man, if his talents have been exerted in conversation, will best display his character, is, I trust, 100 well established in the judgment of mankind, to be at all shaken by a sneering observation of Mr. Mason, in his Memoirs of Mr. Williain Whitehead, in wbich there is literally no Life, but a mere dry narrative of facts. I do not think it was quite necessary to attempt a depreciation of what is universally esteemed, because it was not to be found in the ininediate object of the ingevious writer's pen; for in trutlı, from a man 80 still and so tame', as to be contented to pass many years as the domestic companion of a superannuated lord and lady, conversation could no more be expected, than from a Chinese mandarin on a chimney-piece, or the fantastic figures on a gilt leather skreen.
If authority be required, let us appeal to Plutarch, the prince of ancient biograpliers. Ούτε ταις επιφανετάταις πράξεσι πάντως ένεσι οήλωσις αριτής ή κακίας, άλλα πράγμα βραχύ πολλάκις, και ρήμα, και παιδιά τις έμφασιν ήθους εποίησεν μάλλον η μάναι μυριύνεκροί, παρατάξεις αι μέγιται, και πολιορκία πόλεων. “ Nor is it always in the inost distinguished achievements that men's virtues or vices may be best discerned; but very often an action of small note, a short saying, or a jest, shall distinguish a person's real character more than the greatest sieges, or the most important battles.”
To this may be added the sentiments of the very man whose life I am about to exhibit. “ The business of the biographer is often to pass slightly over those performances and incidents which produce vulgar greatness, to lead the thoughts into domestic privacies, and display the minute details of daily life, where exterior appendages are cast aside, and weu excel each other only by prudence and by virtue. The account of Thuanus is with great propriety said by its author to have been written, that it might lay open to posterity the private and familiar character of that man, cujus ingenium et candorem ex ipsius scriptis sunt olim semper miraturi, whose candour and genius will to the end of time be by bis writings preserved in admiration.
* There are many invisible circumstances, which whether we read as enquirers after natural or moral knowledge, whether we intend to inlarge our science or increase our virtue, are more important than public occure
rences. Thus Sallust, the greast master of nature, has not forgot in his account of Catiline to remark, that his walk was now quick, and again slow, as an indication of a mind revolving commotion. Thus the story of Melancthon affords a striking lecture on the value of time, by informing us, that when he had made an appointment, he expected not only the hour, but the minute to be fixed, that the day might not run out in the idleness of suspense; and all the plans and enterprises of De Wit are now of less importance to the world than that part of his personal character, which represents him as careful of his health, and negligent of his life.
“ But biography has often been allotted to writers, who seem very little acquainted with the nature of their task, or very negligent about the -performance. They rarely afford any other account than might be collected from public papers, but imagine themselves writing a life, when they exhibit a chronological series of actions or preferments; and have so little regard to the manners or behaviour of their heroes, that more knowledge may be gained of a man's real character, by a short conversation with one of his servants, than from a formal and studied narrative, begun with his pedigree, and ended with his funeral.--
“ There are indeed, some natural reasons why these narratives are often written by such as were not likely to give much instruction or delight, and why most accounts of particular persons are barren and useless. If a life be delayed till interest and envy are at an evd, we may hope for impartiality, but must expect little intelligence; for the incidents which give excellence to biography are of a volatile and evanescent kind, such as soon escape the mem
emory, and are rarely transmitted by tradition. We know how few can pourtray a living acquaintance, except by his most prominent and observable particularities, and the grosser features of his mind; and it may be easily imagined how much of this little knowledge may be lost in imparting it, and how soon a succession of copies will lose all resemblance of the original.”
I am fully aware of the objections which may be made to the minuteness on some occasions of my detail of Johnson's conversation, and how happily it is adapted for the petty exercise of ridicule, by men of superficial understanding, and ludicrous fancy: but I remain firm and confident in my opinion, that minute particulars are frequently characteristic, and always amusing, when they relate to a distinguished man. I am therefore exceedingly unwilling that any thing, however slight, which my illustrious friend thought it worth his while to express, with any degree of point, should perish. For this almost superstitious reverence, I have found very old and venerable authority, quoted by our great modern prelate, Secker, in whose tenth sermon there is the following passage :
Rabbi David Kimchi, a noted Jewish Commentator, who lived about five hundred years ago, explains that passage in the first Psalm, His leaf also shall not wither, from Rabbins yet older than himself, thus: That even the idle talk, so he expresses it, of a good man ought to be regarded;