Johnson’s Style

I’m referring of course to his writing style. His sartorial style was rarely a priority for him, though one of my favourite slices of an anecdote about Johnson involves an elaborate scheme his friends concocted to bring him together at a dinner with John Wilkes, who had been critical of Johnson’s dictionary but who also, as a Member of Parliament, held views with which Johnson strongly disagreed. Johnson ended up being seated next to Wilkes at a dinner, but what I like and remember is his quick decision to attend in the first place, saying to his servant: “Frank, a clean shirt!”

I am working on the section of my book dealing with Johnson’s writing style (or styles), and so supplementing my own thoughts with some secondary research. The classic, and now nearly 80-year-old text on the subject, is W. K. Wimsatt, Jr.’s The Prose Style of Samuel Johnson (Yale University Press, 1941). Still, it sets down some of the basics of Johnson’s style which readers can readily recognize, many of them reflected in his chapter titles: parallelism, antithesis, personal style of diction, sentence length, and so on. It’s a good basic start to anyone interested in the topic. A few years later, Wimsatt published another book about Johnson’s style, but this time concentrating on two works: Philosophic Words: A Study of
Style and Meaning in the Rambler and Dictionary of Samuel Johnson
(Yale, 1948).

A book which I am finding more interesting and insightful on the topic, though, is William Vesterman’s The Stylistic Life of Samuel Johnson (Rutgers University Press, 1977). This book feels more nuanced to me, and also is based on an important premise that has been ignored by some critics: the cross-over that is often made between Johnson’s style — which, yes, often tends to generalization in some of his works — and his life. Vesterman’s idea is that since a lot of Johnson’s writing already deals in abstractions, readers and critics are forced to deal with his life (“the concrete”) in any analysis of his style. He uses this example:

Faced with Johnson’s habit of writing in the largest abstractions, his commentators are left no way to connect his terms save to use them. To oversimplify: if a usual critical tendency of explication is to move to greater abstraction, to say Moby-Dick is not about a whale hunt but about Life and Truth, what then is there to say about a writer whose acknowledged subject is “the choice of Life” and who constantly uses the term, “Truth”? Having preempted the highest level of abstraction, Johnson’s writing tends to seem explainable only by reference to the concrete. (p. 11)

Vesterman’s first chapter after his introduction deals with Johnson’s Life of Savage, so I am re-reading that work before I read Vesterman’s comments. (For those who haven’t read Johnson — or anyone — on Savage, it’s quite a story, and so always fun and instructive to read again.) There is of course other critical literature on Johnson’s style — some of it in the many scholarly biographies — and I will get to that in due course.

Vesterman also makes the good case that Johnson’s style changed over time. The Johnson who wrote the dense essays in The Rambler, for example, is not the same Johnson who was, to a certain extent, more direct and clear in his conversation and in his later works.

En passant, whenever I think of writers and style, I always think of the great Vladimir Nabokov. In apologizing for his editing of the transcript of an interview, Nabokov, often cited as one of the best English prose stylists of the 20th (or any) century, said in a letter to Robert Hughes, an interviewer for National Educational Television: “I am terribly sorry if my extensive cuts are causing you any disappointment, but I am sure you will understand that after all I am almost exclusively a writer, and my style is all I have.” (letter to Hughes, Nov. 9, 1965, in Selected Letters 1940-1977 (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989), p. 381)

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