Samuel Johnson and The Eighteenth-Century Reader

Lisa Berglund

To introduce this course, let me begin with the material that first greets my students, namely, the description in the college catalog:

This course uses the career of Samuel Johnson as a context for studying the development of print culture in the eighteenth century. Topics include details of book manufacture and the book trade; the rise of the newspaper and other genres; the spread of literacy; innovations in editing, and new directions in literary criticism. Texts will include Boswell's Life of Johnson, Johnson's edition of Shakespeare, his Dictionary of the English Language; and selections from The Rambler, the occasional journalism, and the Lives of the Poets. Students also will work with original eighteenth century material held in the Special Collections department in Shain Library.

This seminar is designed for advanced undergraduate English majors. I therefore could assume that all students had taken the intermediate survey of English literature required of majors, and had read Henry IV Part 1, some metaphysical poetry, selections from Paradise Lost, "Lycidas," The Rape of the Lock, and Rasselas.

When I developed this course, I had four basic objectives. First, I want to introduce students to the topic of book history. Since this area of study represents a new venture for me, I figured that it would be wise to center the course on the period I know best, the eighteenth century. Moreover, I have found that students often feel most secure and therefore most willing to take intellectual risks in courses that concentrate on a single author, with whose style and thinking they can become familiar. Therefore, I decided to use Samuel Johnson to ground the seminar. Johnson participated in many important developments in eighteenthcentury book history; he engaged in lexicography, journalism, book reviewing, editing Shakespeare, publishing anthologies, shaping literary criticism, establishing a poetical "canon," and so on. Johnson's concept of the "common reader" and his always vigorous responses to literature, as exhibited in his own writings and as depicted by Boswell, would personalize, as it were, the subject of book history and reception theory for my students.

A second goal is to teach—And to valorize—Johnson's "nonliterary" works, or what students don't encounter in the English department's required survey (that is, Rasselas). I used to offer a seminar on "Johnson and his Circle," and when we read the "Preface to the Dictionary" or the edition of Shakespeare, I was frustrated by a sense that my students never regarded these important works as subjects for serious critical inquiry, that they were just waiting for us to return to "real" literature. The syllabus for "Johnson and his Circle" included novels (Rasselas, The Female Quixote and Evelina) and poetry ("The Vanity of Human Wishes" and "The Deserted Village")—and that's what most students chose to write about. After all, they know how to analyze fiction and poetry. The syllabus for "Samuel Johnson and the Eighteenth-Century Reader," therefore, is designed to eliminate the temptation to write about the familiar; it requires students to rethink what I call their "creative writing" values.

Third, I want students realize that literary criticism is not monolithic. Although our advanced English majors are getting savvy about theory, many still do not recognize that critics differ, that time passes, and that a literary analysis from 1950 makes different assumptions from one written in the 1990s. At the same time, we all need to remember that "new" is not always "best." Therefore, I made a point in this seminar of assigning secondary reading from the last 60 years, books and articles that represent a variety of critical perspectives (not all of which I share). In short papers, which all their classmates read, students were required to summarize and evaluate the criticism, as well as use it to develop their own arguments and questions about Johnson or Boswell. I encouraged them to observe when the criticism was written, what it assumes about the state of Johnson studies, and whether it responds to other criticism assigned in the seminar.

Finally, after several disheartening attempts in previous courses, I continue to experiment with approaches to teaching Boswell's Life of Johnson that will tempt, bribe or oblige students to read, well, most of it. Spreading discussion of Boswell throughout the semester, I figured, would make the book loom less large. Moreover, four students were required to write short papers on Boswell, so they at least would have to pay him some serious attention.

As I reflect on this past semester, I can report that the greatest and most unexpected pleasure came from working in Special Collections. We met in the rare book room—the only course at the College accorded that privilege—and the atmosphere worked magic: paneling and leather bindings, comfy chairs and a wood seminar table, pencils only, no drinks, white cotton gloves for handling grubby books—the students loved it. Moreover, the College's director of special collections, Brian Rogers, took an invaluable interest in the class. He arranged to curate a library exhibit on eighteenthcentury New London printer Timothy Green to coincide with the seminar, and treated us to a tour of the exhibit and a detailed lecture focusing on material not included in the public displays. He also found a number of books (including an edition of Johnson's Dictionary) not listed in the College's unreliable catalog. Moral: Cultivate your librarian!

Combining handson experience of eighteenthcentury publications with readings from Johnson proved extremely stimulating for my students. The resources in Special Collections are limited but we do have some interesting books, including eight volumes of the Harleian Miscellany, a second edition of the Dictionary, and early editions of The Tatler, Johnson's "Plan" for a Dictionary, Evelina, A Sentimental Journey, Anstey's The New Bath Guide, and Piozzi's Anecdotes of the Late Dr. Samuel Johnson. The College also boasts an extensive collection of New London newspapers and ephemera from the late eighteenth century; New London was the home of the first printing press in Connecticut, and official colonial and later state publishing was handled by Timothy Green's firm. Students enjoyed looking at these books and papers, and the readings from Johnson and the secondary sources ensured that their investigations were informed by both eighteenthcentury and modern perspectives.

The semester's work began with the physical and historical examination of eighteenth-century publications—material and issues largely unfamiliar to Connecticut College English majors—and gradually moved to a study of Johnson's literary criticism and Boswell's biography. During the first section of the seminar, devoted to "Books, Newspapers, Periodicals and their Readers," I frequently lectured or conducted sophisticated "Show and Tell" sessions. In addition to the primary and secondary reading, I assigned small projects that required the students to report on aspects of the library's rare book holdings and on cultural topics related to reading in the eighteenth century. The idea for the first short paper (see below), I owe to Germaine Warkinton of Victoria College, University of Toronto; I adapted an assignment that she described on SHARPL. (Requiring this paper for the second class meeting also reduced enrollment to a desirable size.) I borrowed the idea of asking students to read and write by candlelight (see below) from Terry Belanger of the University of Virginia, another generous member of SHARPL. A third assignment I designed specifically to take advantage of our resources in Special Collections: I had each student examine a different issue of the New London Gazette, mostly from the 1790s, and draw deductions from their findings. Naturally, they tended to report new items and features that struck them as amusing; one student described an advertisement in which a man announced that he would not be responsible for his errant wife's debts, whereupon another student reported that her issue of the Gazette contained their wedding announcement! More seriously, students noted the lack of a distinction between news and advertisement, for example, and commented on how the datedness of European news reflected the time it took ships to cross the Atlantic.

After spending a week on the early sections of Boswell's Life of Johnson, our next topic was Johnson's Dictionary. Several students later observed that they found themselves unexpectedly fascinated by the issues and problems of lexicography. Not only did we study Johnson's "Preface" and "Plan"; we spent one class period examining dictionaries, and part of another hearing informal reports of research on definitions (see assignment below). Again, the class discussion that ensued convinced me that, in this seminar, "familiar things were made new." One student had looked up the word "courage," which Johnson defines as "active fortitude," but which a more recent dictionary calls "ability to disregard fear"—the difference was a fruitful spur to debate over the influence of the language and tone of definitions, and the general passivity of dictionary users. During this section of the course, we considered the ways in which dictionaries shape our experience of language and authority; we talked about online dictionaries, slang dictionaries, "college" dictionaries, and so on. One student looked up in his desktop dictionary the very Johnsonian word "hope" and found it illustrated by . . . a picture of Bob Hope. I can promise you that none of these students will ever again begin a paper with "The American Heritage Dictionary defines tragedy as . . . ."

After spring break, we returned from terra incognita to more familiar geography: Johnson's edition of Shakespeare, and his Lives of Milton, Cowley, Gray and Pope. I also interspersed two more weeks on Boswell. Given their generally strong backgrounds in literary analysis, at this point in the semester I expected the students to assume more responsibility for the class. Early on, I myself had led discussion of the papers that students distributed via email (see syllabus); I had permitted, even encouraged, descriptive or interrogative essays, given the unfamiliarity of so much of the material. After spring break, on the other hand, I required them to write more argumentative papers that could generate fruitful commentary on the primary and secondary readings. I also assigned pairs of students to lead discussion of their peers' essays. Finding that the students who weren't writing during a particular week tended to prepare insufficiently for class, I began to assign them individual study questions on the primary reading. This extra requirement also allowed me to guide the students to make connections from week to week, and provided insurance against the occasional weak or misguided paper.

As I review the syllabus, I have some regrets about material I could not fit into the seminar, particularly the Life of Savage, the Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland, and Piozzi's Anecdotes. Indeed, I so often apologized in class for omitting the latter work that my students suggested I include it on the syllabus next time I teach the course. I will take their advice. Since I found that students grasped Johnson's critical position on the metaphysical poets very quickly, the class can afford to spend only a week on the lives of Cowley and Milton together. Then, I will drop the Life of Gray, and insert a week on the Anecdotes before the final week on Boswell. My students also urged me to include more book history and hands-on projects, and if possible to spread these assignments throughout the semester. I am exploring ways of putting this suggestion into practice without compromising my wish to include a substantial amount of Johnson's critical writing.

Given the evidence of their final, long essays (for description, see below), most of my students this semester learned to approach literature more warily and more inventively than before. The seminar led them to a more sophisticated understanding of the relation between the book as a physical and cultural artifact on the one hand, and, on the other, as the seemingly unsubstantial target of literary criticism and theory. They also are now increasingly sensitive to the ways in which political, social, and cultural forces construct works that they had regarded as dull, "un-authored," "non-literary" texts—dictionaries, anthologies, editions of Shakespeare, even biographies—and they've learned how these works in turn shape readers like themselves. If I have succeeded in this seminar, they will continue to develop as self-aware readers of both eighteenthcentury literature and contemporary writing in all its concrete and electronic manifestations. Of course, I still won't guarantee that they read all of Boswell.

Course Outline/Syllabus

Required Texts

Samuel Johnson, Selected Poetry and Prose (ed. Brady/Wimsatt)

James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson (Oxford)

photocopy packet

You will need a copy of your Norton Major Authors anthology from [the sophomore survey] and a copy of Shakespeare's King Lear.

Secondary Reading (Books on Reserve)

John Barrell, English Literature in History, 1730-80: An Equal, Wide Survey. New York: St. Martin's, 1983.

Terry Belanger, "Publishers and Writers in Eighteenth-Century England," in Books and their Readers, ed. Isabel Rivers. New York: St. Martins, 1982.

David A. Copeland, Colonial American Newspapers: Character and Content. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1997.

G. A. Cranfield, The Development of the Provincial Newspaper, 1700-1760. Oxford: Clarendon, 1962.

Robert DeMaria, Jr, Johnson's Dictionary and the Language of Learning. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986.

Leopold Damrosch, The Uses of Johnson's Criticism. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1976.

Colin Franklin, Shakespeare Domesticated: The Eighteenth-Century Editions. Scholar Press, 1991.

Paul Fussell, Samuel Johnson and the Life of Writing. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1971.

Jonathon Green, Chasing the Sun: Dictionary Makers and the Dictionaries They Made. New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1996.

Donald Greene, "Boswell's Life as Literary Biography,'" in Boswell's Life of Johnson: New Questions, New Answers, ed. John A. Vance. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1985.

Donald Greene, "'Tis a Pretty Book, Mr. Boswell, But—," in Boswell's Life of Johnson: New Questions, New Answers, ed. John A. Vance. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1985.

Donna Heiland, "Remembering the hero in Boswell's Life of Johnson," in New Light on Boswell, ed. Greg Clingham. Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Frederick W. Hilles, "The Making of the `Life of Pope,'" in New Light on Dr. Johnson: Essays on the Occasion of his 250th Birthday. Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1967.

Norman Holland, "How Can Dr. Johnson's Remarks on Cordelia's Death Add to My Own Response?" in Psychoanalysis and the Question of the Text, ed. Geoffrey H. Hartman. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978.

Adrian Johns, The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making. Chicago University Press, 1998.

Frederick A. Pottle, "The Adequacy as Biography of Boswell's Life of Johnson," in Boswell's Life of Johnson: New Questions, New Answers, ed. John A. Vance. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1985.

Ralph W. Rader, "Literary Form in Factual Narrative: The Example of Boswell's Johnson," in Boswell's Life of Johnson: New Questions, New Answers, ed. John A. Vance. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1985.

Richard B. Schwartz, Boswell's Johnson: A Preface to the Life. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1978.

Arthur Sherbo, Samuel Johnson, Editor of Shakespeare, with an Essay on the Adventurer. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1956.

Nahum Tate, The History of King Lear. 1691. In Five Restoration Adaptations of Shakespeare. Ed. Christopher Spencer. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1965.

Edward Tomarken, Samuel Johnson on Shakespeare: The Discipline of Criticism. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1991.

David Vincent, Literacy and Popular Culture in England, 1750-1914. Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Photocopies on Reserve

Lisa Berglund, "The Readers of The Rambler and Johnson's Attack on Pastoral" (unpubl.)

Leopold Damrosch, "Samuel Johnson and Reader-Response Criticism." The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation 21:2 (1980)

Robert DeMaria, "Samuel Johnson and the Reading Revolution." Eighteenth-Century Life 16 (1992)

James F. Woodruff, "Johnson's Rambler and its Contemporary Context." Bulletin of Research in the Humanities (1982)

Course Requirements

Three short papers (one 10%, two 20% each), one longer essay (30%), participation in class discussion (20%), and attendance. You must complete all assigned work in order to pass the course.

You may miss three classes without penalty. Subsequent absences will result in the lowering of your final grade by 2/3 of a level (e.g., a B would become a C+). If you are more than 10 minutes late, you will be marked absent. If you are absent when one of your papers is scheduled for discussion, your participation mark will be lowered by one full grade. If you miss class, be sure to collect handouts from the bin on my office door.

When you have a paper due, you must read all assigned material for that week; otherwise, the "recommended" reading is optional. Papers should be 750-1000 words, and must be distributed via email no later than 12 noon on Mondays. Because these papers will be discussed in class, late papers are not acceptable. If you cannot distribute a paper on time, speak with me well in advance. Late papers will be marked down one full grade unless you and I have reached an agreement beforehand. If your paper is more than a week late I may refuse to accept it, in which case it will be graded F.

The final essay must be typed and double-spaced. Essays that do not follow the citation and format guidelines handed out in class will be returned for revision and may be marked down for lateness. If you wish, you may hand in advance drafts for my comments; I will return drafts within 48 hours. Feel free to consult me at any stage during the composition of any paper.

Weeks in which two student papers will be distributed for class discussion are marked (*) below.

You are responsible for reading your classmates' papers BEFORE class meets. If you are assigned a study question or asked to comment on a classmate's paper, prepare a 2-3 minute answer. You should participate in discussion of all papers and study questions.

Week 1

Monday: Introduction

Wednesday: Paper: Observations on an eighteenth-century book

Week 2

Monday: Johns, The Nature of the Book, Ch. 2

Wednesday: Belanger, "Publishers and Writers in Eighteenth-Century England
Vincent, Literacy and Popular Culture in England, 1750-1914, Ch. 1

Assignment (prepare for discussion): reading and writing by candlelight

Week 3*

Johnson, The Rambler (1750-1752) [all essays in anthology and in packet]

Fussell, Samuel Johnson and the Life of Writing, Ch. 6

Woodruff, "Johnson's Rambler and its Contemporary Context"

Week 4*

Johnson, "Proposals for the Harleian Miscellany" (1743), "An Account of the Harleian Library" (1743), "Introduction to the Harleian Miscellany" (1744), and "On the Duty of a Journalist" (1758) [in packet]

The Connecticut Gazette (copies in Special Collections)

Specific assignment TBA

Copeland, Colonial American Newspapers (first and last chapters)

Cranfield, The Development of the Provincial

Newspaper, 1700-1760 (Chs. 1-2)


Week 5*

Johnson, Rambler 60 (1750) and Idler 84 (1759)

Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791), pp. 1-430.

We will discuss 1-26, 47-52, 105-107, 119-27, 43-88, 240-44, 272-362.

Schwartz, Boswell's Johnson: A Preface to the Life Heiland, "Remembering the hero in Boswell's Life of Johnson"


Week 6*

Johnson, "Plan of the English Dictionary" (1745) [packet], "Preface to the Dictionary" (1755) and "Letter to Chesterfield" (1755)

Fussell, Samuel Johnson and the Life of Writing, Ch. 7

Green, Chasing the Sun, introduction and Chs. 8-9

Week 7*

Johnson, Dictionary of the English Language (1755); Definitions Assignment

DeMaria, Johnson's Dictionary and the Language of Learning, introduction

Barrell, English Literature in History, 1730-80: An Equal, Wide Survey, Ch. 2


Week 8

Johnson, "Preface to Shakespeare" (1765)

Sherbo, Samuel Johnson, Editor of Shakespeare, Ch. 4

Franklin, Shakespeare Domesticated (skim)

Week 9*

Monday: Shakespeare, Henry IV (1597) and Johnson, Notes on Henry IV [packet]

Sherbo, Samuel Johnson, Editor of Shakespeare, Ch. 5

Tomarken, Samuel Johnson on Shakespeare: The Discipline of Criticism, Ch. 1

Wednesday: Shakespeare, King Lear (1606), Johnson, Notes on King Lear [packet], and Tate, The History of King Lear (1691)

Tomarken, Samuel Johnson on Shakespeare: The Discipline of Criticism, Ch. 5

Holland, "How Can Dr. Johnson's Remarks on Cordelia's Death Add to My Own Response?"


Week 10*

Wednesday: Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791), pp. 431-894. We will discuss 513-50 and 664-790.

Rader, "Literary Form in Factual Narrative: The Example of Boswell's Johnson"

Greene, "'Tis a Pretty Book, Mr. Boswell, But—"

Pottle, "The Adequacy as Biography of Boswell's Life of Johnson"

Greene, "Boswell's Life as Literary Biography"


Week 11*

Johnson, "Life of Milton" (1779); Ramblers 36, 37, 94 (1750)

Fussell, Samuel Johnson and the Life of Writing, Ch. 9

Berglund, "The Readers of the Rambler and Johnson's Attack on Pastoral"

Week 12*

Johnson, "Life of Cowley" (1779) and "Life of Gray" (1781)

Damrosch, "Samuel Johnson and Reader-Response Criticism"

DeMaria, "Samuel Johnson and the Reading Revolution"

Week 13*

Johnson, "Life of Pope" (1781)

Proposal for Final Paper Due

Hilles, "The Making of the 'Life of Pope'"

Damrosch, The Uses of Johnson's Criticism, Ch. 8


Week 14

Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791), pp. 895-1402. We will discuss 899-982, 1090-1114, 1283-1305, 1326-1333, 1374-1402.

Draft of Final Paper Due

Samuel Johnson and The Eighteenth-Century Reader

Exam Week

Final Paper Due, 10-12 pp.

Four Assignments:

1. Paper No. 1.

Visit Special Collections (open 9-5 M-F) and choose an eighteenth-century edition of a book to examine (the book need not have been written in the eighteenth century).

Then, write an essay of at least three pages (750 words) that answers the following questions:

1. Identify the book.

2. Why did you choose the book you did?

3. Describe the book in as much detail as possible. Look for features that strike you as different from features of late 20th-century books; look for resemblances.

4. What does this exercise suggest about the experience of reading in the eighteenth century?

2. Exercise on reading by candlelight

I gave each student a candle and a volume from my own (incomplete and battered) 1792 set of Johnson's Lives of the Poets. Students were required to read for 10 minutes by candle-light, and then to write for 10 minutes by candlelight. Then they were to report back to the class on what they learned from the exercise. [No, I did not require them to use quills, or even fountain pens.]

3. Exercise on using the Dictionary

1. Choose two words. This will probably be the hardest part of the assignment. The words need to appear in Johnson's Dictionary and must still be in current use, although their meanings may have changed. Try to think of at least one word that you consider "ordinary" and one that you consider more unusual (not necessarily difficult). However, do not choose a word with many different meanings, like a common verb (e.g., "run").

2. Look up one word in the following sources, in order:

Johnson's Dictionary (in the English department office)

the Oxford English Dictionary (in the computer room) the 1857 Merriam-Webster Dictionary (in Special Collections)

the newest dictionary in Shain library (ask at the Reference Desk)

Note definitions, etymology, pronunciation, examples of usage, illustrations if any, etc.

3. Look up the other word in the following sources, in order:

Johnson's Dictionary on CD-Rom

The Oxford English Dictionary on line

whatever dictionary you own

Prepare a commentary on your observations about these different experiences of word-searching. You will share this information with the class but need not hand it in. Bring photocopies of different definitions if you find anything particularly interesting.

4. Final Paper, 10-12 pages. Draft due 12 May; revision due 19 May at my office by 5 p.m.

No later than Wednesday, 5 May you should submit to me, in email or hard copy form, a paragraph describing your topic and the approach you intend to take. You also should be prepared to discuss your ideas briefly that day in class.

Your paper must offer a critical analysis of at least one of the texts by Johnson or Boswell assigned for this class. The paper must engage with one or more of the books or essays assigned as "recommended reading," although you also should feel free to discuss critics I didn't assign. You also may quote from your classmates' short papers, if appropriate. Be sure to prepare a proper Works Cited page and to follow the format guidelines distributed in class.

In writing this paper you may use material from your shorter papers, provided that you substantially develop it in this new context.

If you wish to explore issues raised by a physical examination of any of the eighteenth-century editions we looked at during the semester, you may do so as long as you fulfill the requirements above.



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