Tag Archives: James Boswell

Dr Johnson Hates My American Guts

Brunching Johnson by Henry Wallis
“Sir, I perceive that you are a vile Whig.” Dr Johnson seems to be saying this or thinking it of one person or another pretty much all the time. Re-reading Boswell’s hulking tome last month, I eventually came to understand that, in fact, I am among the vile.

Not that I really am a Whig; no one’s a Whig anymore (and I hope I’m not especially vile either). But for Johnson it seems that “vile Whig” and “American” are largely synonymous.

In his pamphlet titled Taxation No Tyranny (1775), quoted by Boswell, Johnson says of those bratty Americans that “their numbers are, at present, not quite sufficient for the greatness which, in some form of government or other, is to rival the ancient monarchies; but by Dr. Franklin’s rule of progression, they will, in a century and a quarter, be more than equal to the inhabitants of Europe.”

“When the Whigs of America are thus multiplied,” he continues, “let the Princes of the earth tremble in their palaces… [T]heir own hemisphere would not contain them. But let our boldest oppugners of authority look forward with delight to this futurity of Whiggism.” Said with a hearty sneer.

Elsewhere Johnson refers to the fractious colonists as “a race of convicts” who “ought to be thankful for any thing we allow them short of hanging.” Curbing an impulse of otherwise catholic philanthropy, he professes himself “willing to love all mankind, except an American.”

It’s hard sometimes to tell when Johnson is speaking in earnest and when he’s simply “talking for victory” (that is, taking a side and arguing it so as to win the question), but Boswell considered him sincere on this particular subject.

In Johnson’s mind, the divine right of kings was necessary to the smooth working of society (even if you did have to cut off their heads occasionally), and social subordination in the style of the British class system no less so. God may be no respecter of persons, but that’s divine prerogative and not a privilege accorded mortals.

Whiggism, on the contrary, suggests that class distinction, being a moral and historical fiction, may be jettisoned (or replaced, say, by an index of wealth or education) – and that the consent of the governed is the validating basis of any government.

As an American of colonial-era ancestry, this is mother’s milk to me. And so I perceive that I am indeed a vile Whig, a half-anarchist in the old Tory’s eyes. But it’s silly, at this distance, to take much offense, especially when you’re on the winning side.

“There is a reciprocal pleasure in governing and being governed,” the old sage says, and “subordination tends greatly to human happiness.” Boswell (child of privilege and heir to a semi-feudal estate) nods his purely disinterested agreement. “Were we all upon an equality,” Johnson suggests, “we should have no other enjoyment than mere animal pleasure.”

Cue the sounds of belching pigs and copulating monkeys. It’s a Whig’s world now, or something like it.


Filed under Misc.

Marginalia, no.283

That creature was its own tormentor, and I believe its name was Boswell.

~ Samuel Johnson in Boswell’s Life of Johnson

The moth was Boswell, but what was the candle? Wine? Women? Maybe it was Johnson himself. The disciple is sometimes burnt in the flame of the master’s example. He may admire himself right out of existence.

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Los Angeles and Back

Work – at least my work – is the kind of carnivorous, grasping beast that will only require more from you the more that you feed it. It’s important to sometimes neglect the thing, like a human child. Having been with my employer eight years now, I earn days off faster than I can practically use them. The company discourages the long absences necessary to really unwind, but a day now and then isn’t a problem. I recently took a Friday off and drove south to Los Angeles.

There I joined my rather impressive brother, the PhD, at a hotel in Santa Monica where he had holed up to finish a book on deadline. He lives in Atlanta but was in the area to give a keynote at a university conference. My brother was a gymnast when younger and on scholarship at Stanford when he broke his neck in competition. It was one of the big tragic-comic moments of our family life, almost a relief to him since he was ready for a more academic focus. Luckily there was no paralysis. I’ll never forget walking into the hospital room to find him with a metal halo drilled at several points into his skull, smirking the way he does. My sainted brother.

Next morning we met our sister at the airport and after an acceptable plate of huevos rancheros we walked to Venice Beach together. I’d never been, but it was quite what you’d expect. We paid five dollars apiece to see a freak show. Inside was a menagerie of live and pickled animals, two-headed, five-legged, some just skeletons. There was a girl who ate fire and bent her arms backwards. There was a sword swallower too, shirtless in an unbuttoned lab coat, with his eyebrows shaved off. For an encore he twisted a large metal hook up his nose and out of his mouth. I took a photo.

At a bookshop not far from the medical marijuana dispensary I picked up a 1952 Modern Library edition of Boswell’s Life of Johnson in a still-pristine dust jacket. On my way out, the proprietor (who also sells jazz records and discs) encouraged me to “save the world one book at a time,” and I promised to do so. In the car next morning I listened to Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew and found it a perfect sonic compliment to the fever-swamp freeways, the yellow floating sun-glare, and the temblor-jumbled strata of the desert mountains that throw themselves at you while driving north.

Hours later, in the San Joaquin Valley, I saw a circling congregation of eight or ten American white pelicans, massive unearthly birds. Like warlocks stirring spells of air, they traced the shape of their invisible floating cauldron two-hundred feet overhead. Tilting at each turn, the bone-white wings would flash and vanish, flash and vanish in staggered succession like daylight fireworks visible from miles away. In the flowering orchards below, mating pairs of ravens built their nests and picked at road kill.

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