Johnson was an excellent writer, was able to compose his sentences quickly if necessary, and didn’t hesitate to say exactly what was on his mind. Sometimes the latter manifested in tersely blunt assessments or advice, and sometimes it was couched in language that was no less frank but a bit more diplomatic and respectful. Many of the key events in Johnson’s life are marked (or known about at all) by a letter he wrote about them:
- the 25-year-old Johnson telling Edward Cave that he, Johnson, could improve Cave’s Gentleman’s Magazine (and this was in effect his application for a job there)
- the letter to James Macpherson, who had written some fake Gaelic poems and tried to pass them off as ancient poetry
- the letter to Lord Chesterfield’s about the latter’s poor performance as a patron of Johnson’s dictionary
And this is just a tiny selection.
One lesser-known letter was written only about three months before his death in 1784, and it is a nice illustration not only of his style but of the articulate and civilized way he could state some inconvenient truths. First, a little background … Johnson had been awarded annual pension of £300 about twenty years earlier for his literary achievement. By 1784, his friends were trying to get the amount increased, and without his knowledge made a plea to the government for his case. It was refused. As Bruce Redford notes in his edition of Johnson’s letters: “the King had turned down Lord Thurlow’s request that SJ’s pension be increased in order to cover the expenses of a trip to Italy.”
Part of Johnson’s reply to Thurlow (who was Lord High Chancellor) was as follows (this version is from an edition of Boswell’s Life on Project Gutenberg, and differs in some details from Redford’s scholarly version:
After a long and not inattentive observation of mankind, the generosity of your Lordship’s offer raises in me not less wonder than gratitude. Bounty, so liberally bestowed, I should gladly receive, if my condition made it necessary; for, to such a mind, who would not be proud to own his obligations? But it has pleased GOD to restore me to so great a measure of health, that if I should now appropriate so much of a fortune destined to do good, I could not escape from myself the charge of advancing a false claim. My journey to the continent, though I once thought it necessary, was never much encouraged by my physicians; and I was very desirous that your Lordship should be told of it by Sir Joshua Reynolds, as an event very uncertain; for if I grew much better, I should not be willing, if much worse, not able, to migrate. Your Lordship was first solicited without my knowledge; but, when I was told that you were pleased to honour me with your patronage, I did not expect to hear of a refusal; yet, as I have had no long time to brood hope, and have not rioted in imaginary opulence, this cold reception has been scarce a disappointment; and, from your Lordship’s kindness, I have received a benefit, which only men like you are able to bestow. I shall now live mihi carior, with a higher opinion of my own merit. I am, my Lord, your Lordship’s most obliged, most grateful, and most humble servant.
I love the flow of this letter. I like how sometimes I have to pause to figure out if something is a compliment, a criticism, or a simple rhetorical use of language (e.g., ” the generosity of your Lordship’s offer raises in me not less wonder than gratitude” [it’s not a criticism]). Here I like especially the ending, where he is essentially saying that even though he has been refused the increase in pension, it’s not disappointing because he does at least get the benefit of men of Thurlow’s stature pleading on his behalf. The “kicker,” so to speak, is the sentence: “I shall now live mihi carior, with a higher opinion of my own merit.” The Latin means “dearer to me” or “dearer to myself” and so this represents Johnson spinning very positively what might have been viewed by some other man on the cusp of his 75th birthday as a major sleight from the monarchy.
Many of Johnson’s letters repay this reading them closely. Here there’s humour and modesty and civility, but they certainly are not all like that.