Thursday, May 09, 2013

Two Books on Samuel Johnson

Kate Chisholm reviews two books on Samuel Johnson at the Times Literary Supplement: Freya Johnston and Lynda Mugglestone's edited anthology, Samuel Johnson: The arc of the pendulum, and Julia Allen's Swimming with Dr. Johnson and Mrs. Thrale: Sport, health and exercise in eighteenth century England. The review quotes Johnson on his struggles with the dictionary:
one enquiry only gave occasion to another, that book referred to book, that to search was not always to find, and to find was not always to be informed; and that thus to pursue perfection, was, like the first inhabitants of Arcadia, to chase the sun, which, when they had reached the hill where he seemed to rest, was still beheld at the same distance from them
Allen's work reveals the surprising range of Johnson's physical activities (given his considerable bulk and reputation for melancholy):
Inspired by her knowledge of lexicography and a desire to rescue Johnson from caricature as a “stout, elderly-looking man in a wig”, Allen reproduces a collection of curious gobbets to illustrate the physical (as opposed to mental) activities enjoyed by Johnson and his contemporaries, and the opportunities for exercise afforded them by skating, riding, boxing, swimming, foot-racing and climbing. Of these we know that Johnson attempted all six; not something you might expect of a man noted for his physical awkwardness, depressive tendencies and prodigious hours devoted to his literary output. Yet, if anything, Johnson was a truly twenty-first-century man in his adoption of fast days and vegetarian diets, and his belief in the beneficial effects of exercise on mood and motivation. Allen gives us Johnson the swimmer, diving nude into the sea at Brighton; Johnson the physically daunting nephew of a champion boxer; and Johnson, aged fifty-nine, in defiance of time, space and the balanced life, rolling down a Lincolnshire hillside (is there such a thing in the fenlands?), “turning himself over and over till he came to the bottom”.
Who would have guessed it?: Johnson the boxer, the skinny-dipper; Johnson fasting, foot-racing, and rolling down a hill.

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