Dr. Samuel Johnson, he of the dirty shirt and the radiant heart, died 200 years ago yesterday, bequeathing the first great dictionary to those who speak English, so it was not all that surprising the librarian of Congress should tender a "hero's lunch" in his memory.
It is worth remembering that the capital does not consist entirely of loons who go bats over rock stars, kooks and kinks; for many in town have actually gone to school and conceived an affection for one of the great wits, great stylists and great men of the language.
Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. (R-Md.) suggested some mark of respect, and Dr. Daniel J. Boorstin invited 17 guests, including Dr. Robert Burchfield, editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, and John Wain, Library of Congress lecturer this week and biographer of Johnson.
Everybody remembers Dr. Johnson for different things, apart from his comment that women preachers are like dogs standing on their hind legs, the marvel being not that they do it well but that they do it at all.
For me Dr. Johnson will always be the inventor of the word "conglobulate," especially since he evidently coined it on the moment and used it to pronounce on a subject of which he knew absolutely nothing. He is, and always has been, patron saint of those who write for the daily press, not only because he invented the short discursive article but because he had the right temperament -- he is invariably called lazy, idle and so forth.
Of course a sane man might wonder how a lazy, idle fellow managed to write a dictionary all by himself in seven years (once he mulled it over for two years) and came to be as widely quoted 200 years later as anybody except Shakespeare.
Johnson defined a lexicographer as a writer of dictionaries, a harmless drudge. For Dr. Johnson's honor as a great man, someone suggested he was neither harmless nor a drudge, but the editor of the OED, who has spent 28 years on the supplement to that dictionary, said the drudge part at least was correct.
William Safire, who writes about words and usage for The New York Times, said he could hardly wait to get to a dictionary to check on Boorstin's pronunciation of "vagaries," which was correct, needless to say (it rhymes with canaries), and this shows the pitfalls of our tongue, by which even an authority on usage may be tricked by the spelling of cow, as you might say, or forget how to pronounce those very words (vagaries, anfrac- tuosities, for example) columnists like. It was thought especially brave to challenge Boorstin openly. Columnists usually sneak to the dictionary first, then let fly.
John Kerr, who is head of chancery at the British embassy, came prepared to defend the empire in case anybody said Johnson was anti-American merely because he said a few amusing things: "Sir, they are a race of convicts and ought to be thankful for anything we allow them short of hanging," and "You know I am willing to love all mankind, except an American."
Kerr, who may be expected to go far, began by citing these quotations and (I know not how) proving that Dr. Johnson adored America, or would have if he had lived just a trifle longer.
Wise and learned observations were contributed by Frank Brady, a wheel in the Yale edition of James Boswell's papers; Leopold Damrosch, a College Park authority on Johnson; and Calhoun Winton, another University of Maryland authority on the 18th century and biographer of Richard Steele; along with George Winchester Stone, retired dean of the graduate school of New York University.
A word fellow I have always admired, John Moore, noted in his book "You English Words" that Johnson loved to say something one way, then repeat it in high-octane variants. Moore likened this to the gambols of an elephant. Thus (of a certain stage play):
"It has not wit enough to keep it sweet." Followed by, "It has not vitality enough to preserve it from putrefaction."
The good doctor's humor could reach heights, as in his account of Edmund Smith, who was fixing to write a tragical verse history of Lady Jane Grey. Smith retired to the country to avoid distractions but ran into such good food and drink ("such opportunities of indulgence as did not much forward his studies") as to surfeit. Dr. Johnson goes on:
"He ate and drank till he found himself plethoric; and then, resolving to ease himself by evacuation, he wrote to an apothecary in the neighborhood a prescription of a purge so forcible that the apothecary thought it his duty to delay it till he had given notice of its danger.
"Smith, not pleased with the contradiction of a shopman, and boastful of his own knowledge, treated the notice with rude contempt, and swallowed his own medicine which, in July, 1710, brought him to the grave."
To combine successfully such fact, pathos, farce, social commentary and criticism in so short a passage, and to do it in language notable for clarity and ready comprehension, was a peculiar gift, and how rare it is may be seen by attempting such a thing oneself.
But then, for grave, temperate and irrecoverable insult we have nothing in the language to surpass his letter to Lord Chesterfield, a "patron" who offered no encouragement until the work was done, then leapt about like a goat.
"Seven years, my lord, have now passed since I waited in your outward rooms or was repulsed from your door; during which time I have been pushing on with my work through difficulties of which it is useless to complain, and have brought it at last to the verge of publication without one act of assistance, one word of encouragement or one smile of favour . . ."
And he twists it a little further:
"Is not a patron, my lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and when he has reached ground encumbers him with help? The notice which you have been pleased to take of my labours, had it been early had been kind; but it has been delayed till I am indifferent and cannot enjoy it; till I am solitary and cannot impart it; till I am known and do not want it." Which pretty well takes care of Lord Chesterfield, though Johnson did further observe of his lordship's own famous letters that they teach the morals of a whore and the manners of a dancing master. The truth is, he may not have cared for Chesterfield.
Whenever you have authorities gathered in a room, to say nothing of a couple of reporters, too, you want to have a halcyon that can land on any ruffled waters and soothe them, so from time to time we heard from the library's John Broderick, ready to mend any small feathers.
If things seemed too solemn, the new Folger Shakespeare Library director, Dr. Werner Gundersheimer, was on hand to quote the pretty epitaph (you do not want to get too frivolous, after all) written by the great art historian Erwin Panofsky for himself, and which seemed at least semi-right for Johnson:
"He hated gardening, small boys, and birds;
But loved a few adults, all dogs, and words."
Sweet. But the air of the pretty room, I thought, was charged with the doctor's ghost and the faded echo of those overwhelming sentences he was master of:
"Though no book was ever spared out of tenderness to the author, and the world is little solicitous to know whence proceeded the faults of that which it condemns, yet it may gratify curiosity to inform it that the English Dictionary was written with little assistance of the learned and without any patrongage of the great; not in the soft obscurities of retirement or under the shelter of academick bowers, but amid inconvenience and distraction, in sickness and in sorrow."
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