History's Coolest Literary Club
In the Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped an Age, Leo Damrosch surveys the world of Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, Edmund Burke, Edward Gibbon and other leading British eighteenth-century luminaries who shaped not only their age, but also our own.
Leo Damrosch, The Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends who Shaped an Age (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2019), 488 pp., $30.00.
UPON RECIEVING Leo Damrosch’s engaging new book, The Club, I hauled my dusty copy of Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language off the shelf. I say “haul” because my facsimile of the original 1755 edition weighs more than twelve pounds: heavy going for lifting though not for reading. I wanted to see how Johnson defined the word “club” since the focal point of Damrosch’s collection of eighteenth-century London lives and ideas is a club. And not just any club, but the Club—the small circle of friends organized by the great lexicographer and Sir Joshua Reynolds, the foremost English portrait artist of the time.
A club, according to Johnson’s Dictionary, is “[a]n assembly of good fellows, meeting under certain conditions.” Johnson’s own club certainly lived up to his definition, which the author gets around to quoting after a hundred pages or so. The concept of the Club had been Sir Joshua’s. It was to be a group made up of “convivial and interesting friends who would spend an evening together once a week.” The co-founders decided, Damrosch tells us,
...that nine members would be a good number—enough to keep conversation lively and wide-ranging, even when not everyone was able to attend. Another member said later that the intention was to choose people so agreeable ‘that if only two of these chanced to meet for the evening, they should be able to entertain each other.’ They chose a Latin motto for the club, esto perpetua, ‘Let it be perpetual.’
So it has. Allowing for dormant intervals, the Club has “remained in being right down to the present day, under the name of the London Literary Society” and including in its ranks such latter-day nineteenth- and twentieth-century luminaries as Sir Walter Scott, Thomas Babington Macaulay, William Ewart Gladstone, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Matthew Arnold, Rudyard Kipling, Neville Chamberlain, Lord Kenneth Clark, T.S. Eliot, Max Beerbohm and Prime Minister Harold Macmillan.
All of which is pretty impressive, but not nearly so much so as the list of eighteenth-century members that, besides Reynolds and Johnson, included: poet/playwright/novelist Oliver Goldsmith; parliamentary orator and foremost political essayist of his time, Edmund Burke; the leading actor and theatrical manager of the period; David Garrick, who introduced a more natural acting style and launched a popular Shakespeare revival; Adam Smith, the father of modern economics; and Edward Gibbon, member of parliament and author of one of the greatest historical works of all time—his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Nor should we omit James Boswell, failed barrister but inspired biographer, and the compulsive diarist thanks to whom modern readers can share much of the wit, wisdom and repartee that sparkled and flowed at the Club’s weekly meetings, held at the Turk’s Head Tavern on Gerrard Street near the Strand in its first twenty years and afterwards carried on at other London hostelries.
There had, of course, been earlier London clubs. Some of them survive today. White’s, founded in the late seventeenth century, was a Tory stronghold with a large aristocratic contingent. As director of speechwriting for President Ronald Reagan, I was pleased to see that this had not changed when I dined there. One of the first members my host introduced me to was the chap then in charge of writing speeches for the heir to the throne, Charles, Prince of Wales. A little younger than White’s, Brooks’ and Boodle’s were both eighteenth-century spin-offs, with a heavy representation of Whig rather than Tory grandees. But these flush establishments, mainly reserved for the titled and the very wealthy, were best known for the quality of their wine cellars and the high stakes at their gaming tables. By contrast, Johnson’s outfit had a membership based on merit, intelligence and the then new but now familiar Johnsonian concept of “clubability”—of cultivation, wit, esprit and conviviality—that could contribute to the quality of its conversations.
THE GREATEST talker of them all was Johnson himself, the power of whose words was such that it could overcome a physical presence that can only be described as wretched. On initially meeting the hulking, twitching Johnson, the visitor’s sense of sight and smell was likely to kick in almost immediately. The first time Boswell visited him in his lodgings, he remembered that,
His brown suit of clothes looked very rusty; he had on a little old shriveled unpowdered wig, which was too small for his head; his shirt-neck and knees of his breeches were loose; his black worsted stockings ill drawn up; and he had a pair of unbuckled shoes by way of slippers. But all these slovenly particularities were forgotten the moment that he began to talk.
Johnson loved a good argument, even with himself. He once told a fellow member that “he had had a dream in which he was upset because somebody else was besting him in a contest of wit.” Consolation came with wakening, however, when “he realized that he himself was responsible for both sides” of the argument in his dream. Johnson declared that wine exhilarated his spirits, “and prompts me to free conversation and an interchange of discourse with those whom I most love. I dogmatize and am contradicted, and in this conflict of opinions and sentiments I find delight.” Still, Johnson, who could imbibe prodigious quantities of alcohol, went on the wagon more than once, sipping lemonade while his comrades dived into the port, punch and brandy. It never stemmed the flow of conversation since, for him, the words, not the drink, were heady. A lonely, haunted widower prone to lengthy bouts of sloth and depression, he even composed a prayer to ward off his twin foes:
Enable me, by thy Holy Spirit, so to shun sloth and negligence, that every day may discharge part of the task which Thou hast allotted me; and so further with thy help that labour which, without thy help, must be ineffectual, that I may obtain, in all my undertakings, such success as will most promote thy glory, and the salvation of my own soul…
Prayerful moments aside, Johnson came fully to life while writing or talking. And, for Johnson, talking usually meant jousting. He almost always was victorious in the lists. “There is no arguing with Johnson,” Goldsmith once complained, “for if his pistol misses fire, he knocks you down with the butt end of it.”
As with several other of his famous contemporaries—like Johnson, talented, self-made men of humble origins—his world view, personal, political and spiritual, was essentially conservative. Like the Duke of Wellington in the next century, Johnson was loyal to the Church of England as a social as well as a religious pillar because, as the Great Duke would later express it, it made honest men out of thieves. It was also free of the—to Johnson—detestable mummery of Roman Catholicism on the one hand and the religious hysteria and cant of many of the Non-Conformist attenders of “chapel,” the forerunners of today’s charismatic evangelicals. For Johnson, God was not just an Englishman. He was an Anglican.
But Johnson’s Anglican God inspired a sense of humanity as well as a sense of sin. Desperately poor for much of his life, and never a rich man, he was both humane and practical when it came to the meaning of wealth, declaring that, “There are few ways in which a man can be more innocently employed than in getting money,” but also that, “Getting money is not all a man’s business: to cultivate kindness is a valuable part of the business of life.” These were words he not only stated but lived by with countless acts of generosity to the needy.
The learned doctor had a particularly sharp eye for spotting the limousine liberals (perhaps one should say coach-and-four liberals) of his day, demagogues like John Wilkes who appealed to the lowest instincts of the mob, and self-righteous Whig grandees who boasted endlessly about the glories of that splendid—but physically non-existent—document, the English Constitution. Under the guise of attacking royal prerogatives, the parliamentary Whigs functioned largely as a hereditary plutocracy bent on governing the United Kingdom and its people in their own interest. Johnson had it right: “Sir, your levelers wish to level down as far as themselves; but they cannot bear leveling up to themselves. They would all have some people under them; why not then have some people above them?” The “deplorables,” then as now, were to be kept in their place at all cost.
It was Johnson’s rise from poor obscurity through sheer grit and brilliance that made many members of the Whig elite hate him so intensely. Thus Horace Walpole, the pampered son of Sir Robert Walpole, the greatest—and most corrupt—Whig parliamentary leader (and prime minister in all but name, the title not yet having come into use) of the eighteenth century, “deplored” the good doctor with rather labored condescension in Memoirs of the Reign of King George III: