Thursday, April 25, 2013

Samuel Johnson was not an easy man to like

            London, 1763. My imagination had transported me to Doctor Johnson’s lair – a Fleet Street Coffeehouse. The Great Man fingered his cheap non-powdered wig, better to descant on the Americans whom he called “a race of convicts” who “ought to be thankful for anything we allow them short of hanging.”
            Johnson’s table manners were squalid to the point of splattering those adjacent. He now elected to twit the hapless Goldsmith on the failing of Goldie’s “She Stoops to Conquer,” and then to twit his biographer Boswell on the failings of being Scottish. But the Doctor’s smug magnanimity was for the colonies: “I am willing to love all mankind, except an American.”
            This was, safe to say, insufferable to me, an American in London. Were it not for Boswell’s adulation, Johnson would be dismissed as a quaint lexicographer. If you ask me, the book might better have been Johnson’s Life of Boswell, rather than Boswell’s Life of Johnson. But now Doctor Johnson’s animadversion on Americans set me afire.
            David Garrick, the acting profession’s contribution to Johnson’s Literary Club, was uncharacteristically at a loss for words, offering only a sharp intake of breath.
            As I rose to respond, the coffeehouse quieted.
            “Sir, I rise above your taut. Moreover, looking to the future, should any foreign power ever menace England – let’s say the Germans, hypothetically – we Americans hope you’ll call on us for help.”
            “Indeed,” scoffed someone from the back. “Yankee Doodle to the rescue.”
            Doctor Johnson’s bemusement seemed more muted. There was a sense that I had given him pause, on which note I exited, tripping over his gout-ridden foot on the way and prompting a Johnsonian bellow.
            The Doodle strikes again.
            Postscript: Goldsmith’s “She Stoops to Conquer” endures today as a comedy of manners. It is regarded as a classic.
            England did solicit American assistance in two world wars, both involving Germans.
            Dr. Johnson is today best remembered as a conversationalist, which was his true métier. He never in his long and dramatic life lost his disdain for Americans.

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