There are two classic questions beloved by both interviewers and readers: What 10 books would you choose to take along if marooned on a desert island? And what five people from history would you invite to an ideal dinner party? Many potential castaways would immediately grab James Boswell’s “Life of Samuel Johnson,” probably the most entertaining work of nonfiction in English literature. Interestingly enough, this greatest of all biographies also supplies a possible answer to the second question, but one that isn’t in the least fantastical.
For 20 years, starting in 1764, Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, Edmund Burke, Edward Gibbon and Adam Smith met regularly at the Turk’s Head tavern in London for conversation and conviviality. These are, as Leo Damrosch writes in “The Club,” arguably “the greatest British critic, biographer, political philosopher, historian and economist of all time.” Other members of this 18th-century dining society — nearly all self-made men — included the era’s most famous painter, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and its most celebrated actor, David Garrick, as well as the multitalented Oliver Goldsmith, best known today for his immortal comedy, “She Stoops to Conquer, ” and Richard Brinsley Sheridan, the dramatist who gave us that equally imperishable masterpiece, “The School for Scandal.”
Such an A-list would be hard to match, except for one obvious deficiency: The Club — as it was simply called — excluded women. Damrosch, however, doesn’t. As he composes his group portrait of the Club’s intellectual and artistic superstars, he extends retroactive membership to several notable women, such as Johnson’s benefactor Hester Thrale and the novelist and diarist Fanny Burney. He also periodically reminds us of the servants, prostitutes, mistresses and wives who catered to the whims and whines of these frequently randy, drunken hypochondriacs and depressives. Contemporary paintings and caricatures, all closely scrutinized by Damrosch, further enrich our feel for the age’s high and low life.
Because it tracks at least a dozen figures, “The Club” can’t compare in scholarly depth with Damrosch’s superb critical biographies of Rousseau and Swift. Nonetheless, the now retired Harvard professor of English has brought “the common reader”— Johnson’s term — an exceptionally lively introduction to late 18th-century English thought and literature. No doubt the book grew out of what must have been a dazzling survey course on the age of Johnson.
If you’re already an aficionado of this period, you will recognize that Damrosch compresses a vast amount of detail into his narrative and relates many of the best anecdotes and verbal bonbons associated with Johnson or his friends. I did miss seeing one of my favorite Johnsonisms, though. Speaking of his edition of Shakespeare, the former Grub Street hack confessed, “Sir, I have two very cogent reasons for not printing any list of subscribers: one, that I have lost all the names; the other, that I have spent all the money.”
Unlike the critic George Saintsbury, who looked to 18th-century literature for “repose and refreshment,” Damrosch never idealizes or whitewashes. His Johnson is ugly, palsied, blind in one eye, subject to obsessive-compulsive disorder, possibly sexually masochistic, mortally afraid of damnation and anti-American. Boswell is a feckless, vain alcoholic who lives on handouts from his sarcastic father and can’t keep his pants buttoned: By the time he married at 29, he had enjoyed liaisons or brief encounters with over 70 different women. Both men, not surprisingly, suffered from profound depressions, but Johnson relied on reason, prayer and self-control to battle his demons while little Jamie sought temporary solace in the bottle, streetwalkers or his journal.
Throughout “The Club,” Damrosch seamlessly mixes learned exposition with striking factoids and observations. By the end of the 18th century you could receive the death penalty for at least 250 different crimes. Boswell knew 40 of Horace’s odes by heart. In the Seven Years’ War “for every man who died in battle, an incredible total of 88 died of disease.”
To show the elegant diction and perfect command of syntax that characterize Gibbon’s prose, Damrosch reproduces the best known footnote from “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”: “Twenty two acknowledged concubines, and a library of sixty-two thousand volumes, attested the variety of his inclinations; and from the productions which he left behind him, it appears that the former as well as the latter were designed for use rather than for ostentation.” He also quotes Adam Smith on the danger of allowing businessmen to become rulers. They are, warned the author of “The Wealth of Nations,” “an order of men whose interest is never exactly the same with that of the public, who have generally an interest to deceive and even to oppress the public, and who accordingly have, upon many occasions, both deceived and oppressed it.”
In the end, though, nobody rivals Johnson for generous-hearted compliments or devastating put-downs. He once said that you couldn’t stand for five minutes with Burke “beneath a shed while it rained, but you must be convinced you had been standing with the greatest man you had ever yet seen.” Abraham Cowley’s love poems, however, are “such as might have been written for penance by a hermit, or for hire by a philosophical rhymer who had only heard of another sex.”
That’s from “Lives of the Poets,” a work-for-hire project that became Johnson’s final masterpiece, one which he hoped would give its readers what he called “useful pleasure.” If you put the emphasis on “pleasure” that could be the two-word takeaway for Leo Damrosch’s “The Club.” It’s a magnificently entertaining book.
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style.
By Leo Damrosch
Yale. 473 pp. $30