Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Johnson's Inner Child

Johnson Doing Penance Samuel Johnson as Doctor Spock?  The "Great Cham" of eighteenth  century English letters is not the first person to come to mind in regard to child rearing, but his own upbringing gave him much to reflect upon. 

In an essay for that classic series of meditations, The Rambler #148, Johnson gives us an unwitting autobiographical sketch when he writes: "Capricious injunctions, partial decisions, unequal allotments, distributions of reward, not by merit, but by fancy, and punishments, regulated not by the degree of the offence, but by the humour of the judge, are too frequent where no power is known but that of a father."  And that's just a taste of his discourse upon the tyranny of parents.

James Boswell's Life shows us a Johnson at odds with his stern patriarch, and in later years he was repentant of his childhood disobedience when he famously returned to the town of his birth, and stood in the rain as penance for refusing to man his father's bookstall.

Though he is often portrayed by Boswell (a young man when they first met and who saw in Johnson a father figure) as a gruff and imposing "bear" of a man, many of his contemporaries found him actually loveable.  He never had children himself, but his possible Tourettes and OCD, his rough country ways and lowly accent, no doubt gave him an aura of childlike naivety even into old age.  Likewise, he retained that vital enthusiasm and curiosity of childhood that surely helped enliven the talk of the master conversationalist of the age.

Johnson is too much neglected at the present.  If he is spoken of at all it is often only in the light of Boswell's masterpiece.  Perhaps that monument looms above its subject, but in his essays Johnson can still speak to us with a fatherly patience and gentle humor he no doubt wished his own father had shown himself.  Perhaps the inner child did more to shape the man than we know.