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Les Âges de la vie en Grande-Bretagne au XVIIIe siècle

Serge Soupel

Deuxième partie. Aspects littéraires

Coming of Age in Johnson’s England: Adolescence in The Rambler

James G. Basker

Texte intégral

  • 1 The allusion anses from the occasion of this paper: the international colloquium “Les âges de la v (...)

1As teachers of literature, most of us probably feel a special familiarity with adolescence—we encounter it every day in the classroom. Then, too, from college and graduate school we also remember those long student years of economic dependence and delayed enfranchisement as a kind of prolonged adolescence; certainly that was my own experience, confirmed in the mind of my father, a businessman, who sometimes wondered, understandably, whether I would become a full-fledged self-supporting adult before I reached the age of thirty. (It was close, but I made it). And with the rest of my generation, having come of age during the student revolutions of the late’60s and early’70s, I know how many of us in the university today—of different generations and political persuasions, and particularly our colleagues at the Sorbonne—1 view that period as a watershed in the history of adolescence and retain a lasting sense of the depth and potential ferocity of intergenerational conflict.

2But not to raise fears of a political discussion: my essay takes as its context not political history but the sociology of literature. This essay is part of a larger study I am doing on Samuel Johnson and the Common Reader, the central argument of which is that throughout his works Johnson retained in his mind’s eye not a common reader, but many; that implicit in his rhetoric are many different but overlapping categories of reader that correspond to the real categories of his readers in society: male and female, old and young, of various classes (from idle rich to working-class) and differing levels of education (from the learned to the young apprentice or student).

  • 2 By the age of eighteen Mary Ann Evans had read most of Johnson’s works and Boswell’s Life of Johns (...)

3For those who tend to think of the readership of Johnson’s Rambler as the gentlemen’s club and coffeehouse crowd, they may be surprised to see the degree to which Johnson made adolescents part of the readership and the subject matter of the Rambler. In our elevation of The Rambler as canonical text, we lose sight of its broad-based historic readership. We forget, for example, how many people first read The Rambler as adolescents, from James Boswell in the mid-eighteenth century to Ralph Waldo Emerson and Mary Anne Evans (years before she became George Eliot) in the mid-nineteenth; we forget that Mary Wollstonecraft included Rambler essays in the anthology she compiled for teenage girls, The Female Reader, published in 1789; that the surviving records of the Charleston (South Carolina) Society Library from the early 1800s suggest more extensive borrowing of The Rambler by teenage boys and young men than any other of Johnson’s works; or that at least one diary kept by a teenage girl on a Southern plantation during the American Civil War shows her reading The Rambler to divert herself from the horrors of the war2.

  • 3 See for example McGuffey’s Fiflh Ecleclic Reader (New York, Cincinnati, and Chicago: The American (...)

4Moreover, it was not just privileged or well-educated adolescents who read The Rambler. The view that Rambler essays were appropriate reading for schoolchildren was so widespread in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that selected Ramblers were commonly included in schoolreaders and anthologies for children. In addition to Wollstonecraft’s The Female Reader (1789), with three Ramblers in its contents, the most important were William Enfield’s The Speaker (1774), which contained edited versions of two Rambler essays, and Lindley Murray’s English Reader (1791), which reprinted in full one Rambler and two Idler essays. Both Enfield’s and Murray’s readers went through scores of editions well into the nineteenth century and thus over time became two of the most widely read schoolbooks in the hifitory of English education. The only disagreement seems to have been over which Ramblers were preferable for adolescents to read: Enfield had chosen Ramblers 72 (on “Good Humor”) and 137 (“On the Knowledge of the World”); Wollstonecraft chose Rambler 102 (an allegory of life as an arduous sea voyage) and numbers 130 and 133 (the pair that tell the story of Victoria, the beauty whose narrow education and sense of self-worth are revealed when smallpox mars her); Murray included instead an Oriental tale, Rambler 65, an allegory on the ambitious youth who get lost in the desert on the journey of life and learn to accept wisdom from a hermit-sage. The situation was similar in early America, where these three readers were commonly imported or reprinted from the 1770s well into the nineteenth century. Even after that “new republic”, the United States, was well established, American schoolbook editors also assumed that The Rambler was good reading for adolescents. Mathew Carey’s patriotic-sounding The School of Wisdom, or American Mentor (Philadelphia, 1799) contained scores of Ramblers (in full and in excerpts), while McGuffey’s famous readers included at least one Rambler (usually number 65, perhaps influenced by Murray) from their beginnings in the 1850s well into the twentieth century3.

5Rather than the historic surround, however, I want to focus particularly on the text of The Rambler and the ways in which Johnson makes adolescence, and the difficulties and conflicts it engenders, part of the tapestry of human esperience. I should mention here that Johnson never actually uses the term adolescence and a look into his famous Dictionary suggests that for him the word had no certain meaning. His entries suggest, variously, a stage between childhood and puberty or a condition that may last as long as age twenty-five:

Adolescence, n.s. [adolescientia, Lat.]
The age succeeding childhood, and succeeded by puberty: more largely, that part of life in which the body has not yet reached its full perfection. See Adolescency.

The sons must have a tedious time of childhood and adolescence, before they can either themselves assist their parents, or encourage them with new hopes of posterity. Bentley’s Sermons

Adolescency. n.s. The same with adolescence.
He was so far from a boy, that he was a man born, and at his full stature, if we believe Josephus, who places him in the last adolescency, and makes him twenty-five years. Brown’s Vulgar Errours v. 8

6When we turn to the related term Age, as in “coming of age”, Johnson’s definitions and supporting quotations still do little to clarify the precise boundaries of adolescence:

6. Maturity; ripeness; full strength of life.

A solemn admission of proselytes, all that either, being of age, desire that admission for themselves, or that, in infancy, are by others presented to that charity of the church. Hammond

We thought our fires, not with their own content,
Had, ere we came to age, our portion spent. Dryden

  • 4 All citations from the first edition of Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (London, 1755 (...)

7. In law.
In a man, the age of fourteen years is the age of discretion; and twenty-one years is the full age: in a woman, at seven years of age, the lord her father may distrain his tenants for aid to marry her; at the age of nine years, she is dowable; at twelve years, she is able finally to ratify and confirm her former consent given to matrimony; at fourteen, she is enabled to receive her land into her own hands, and shall be out of ward at the death of her ancestor; at sixteen, she shall be out of ward, though, at the death of her ancestor; she was within the age of fourteen years; at twenty-one, she is able to alienate her lands and tenenents. At the age of fourteen, a stripling is enabled to choose his own guardian; at the age of fourteen, a man may consent to marriage. Cowell4

7Still, however indefinite the concept of adolescence in his Dictionary, in the course of the Rambler Johnson clearly identified and examined a distinct stage of human life between childhood and full adulthood —whether defined in terms of legal, economic, social, or psychological factors, or some combination of them— which we today continue to understand by the term adolescence.

8This essay, then, pursues two basic purposes: first, to examine the extent of Johnson’s attention to adolescence, to parent/adolescent relations, and to patterns of adolescent development, especially (not surprisingly in a moralist) those that produce maladjusted young adults. Second, to touch briefly on the implications of some of Johnson’s “adolescent essays” in The Rambler, including Johnson’s tendency (so prescient of modem attitudes) to hold parents at least as responsible for adolescent problems as the adolescents themselves and his close attention to the particular vulnerability of females during this period of their lives.

  • 5 See Boswell’s Life of Johnson, ed. George Birkbeck Hill, rev. by L.F. Powell (Oxford: Clarendon, 1 (...)
  • 6 The Letters of Samuel Johnson, ed. R.W. Chapman, (Oxford: Clarendon, 1952), vol. 1, letters 148, 1 (...)
  • 7 Bate, Samuel Johnson, 345-46.

9Of the little known about Johnson’s own adolescence, some features stand out: prodigious feats of intellectual performance, occasional eruptions of arrogance and insolence toward his teachers, displays of social ungainliness, and above all, the episode for which he did public penance fifty years later, the young Sam Johnson’s refusal of his sick father’s request that he go in his place to sell books at the Uttoxeter market5. More significant, perhaps, is the fact that as an adult Johnson was always drawn to young people; throughout his life he maintained contact with adolescents and readily joined in their most vigorous activities. One remembers that his lifelong friendship with David Garrick began when Garrick was a teenage student and Johnson his teacher, and that Boswell was scarcely beyond adolescence (many would say he never fully grew out of it) when he first became friends with Johnson in 1763. Johnson’s Collected Letters are full of letters to young people, such as that to young George Strahan, newly enrolled as a student at Oxford in 1765, or later in life his extensive correspondence with Mrs. Thrale’s three daughters, who then ranged in age from eleven to nineteen6. Thanks in part to his extraordinary physical vigor, Johnson was able in a sense to leap over the generation gap, just as he literally, in his fifties, challenged a young don at Oxford one night to climb a college wall with him and in the same year defied a dangerous spot of current while swimming in the river with some undergraduates. The best display of his youthful spirits came the night he was awakened at 3:00AM by two loud revellers, his young friends Beauclerk and Topham, in the Street outside his house; rather than play the cranky old man, Johnson, when he saw who they were, cried “What, is it you, you dogs! I'll have a frisk with you!” and out he came to join them for a drunken ramble that lasted past dawn7.

10As he relished the company of young people in real life, it is natural that Johnson should devote considerable attention to their lives and problems in The Rambler. Specifically, more than twenty-five of the Ramblers deal squarely with adolescent life, its conditions and concerns, conflicts with the older generation, and so forth, and another ten or eleven essays bear on related topics (see lists in Appendix, below). The contents of these essays are also telling for the breadth and suppleness of imagination Johnson shows, as he probes the varieties of adolescent life. In the course of his adolescent Ramblers, the fictional lives Johnson invents and explores represent young people of many different backgrounds and circumstances: male and female, city dwellers and country people, haberdashers’ apprentices and university students, society belles and Street prostitutes.

  • 8 The Rambler, volumes 3-5 of the Yale Edition of The Works of Samuel Johnson, eds. W. J. Bate and A (...)

11Shifting the focus from content to rhetorical frame of reference, one senses the adolescent presence in other ways. More than once Johnson clearly identified the adolescent constituency within his larger audience and addressed them directly: in Rambler 5 he dedicates his meditations on spring to “the younger part of my readers” and in Rambler 111 he calls them “the young and sprightly part of my readers”8, even as he devotes the essay to persuading them to slow down and live more prudently. This sense of young people in the reading public would be natural for Johnson, the former school teacher, who began his writing career editing sections of The Gentleman s Magazine such as the poetry pages to which teenagers regularly contributed; who wrote so many works that would touch the lives of young people, from his Dictionary and his popular edition of The Works of Shakespeare to his paradigmatic fiction of adolescent initiation, the novella Rasselas; and who even in his last major work, The Lives of the Poets, adjusted his tone to include the many students he knew would be among the readers of such a collection.

12Framing several of the Rambler essays that raise issues about young people is the didactic editorial voice of the Rambler himself, conveying the moral seriousness one might expect. Rambler no4 stresses the susceptibility of “the young, the ignorant, and the idle” (3.21) to the new school of realistic fiction: number 48 worries about how the young neglect their health number 121 touches on the arrogance of university students who form their critical ideas without study; numher 175 concerns the way the young ignore or reject the advice of their elders; and number 196 examines the proclivity of youth to indulge hopes and illusions that ultimately prove treacherous.

13Perhaps most exemplary of Johnson’s blend of moral teaching and human sympathy is Rambler 111, in which his theme is the value of ripeness and the dangers of precocity and prematurity. At moments his voice rises into the cadences of the pulpit orator, as if to hammer home his point by repetition; three consecutive clauses begin with the same construction:

He that too early aspires to honours...
he that is too eager to be rich...
he that hastens too speedily to reputation... (4.228)

14and he goes on to declaim dire consequences for each of these overeagernesses. Yet at other points his rhetoric reveals an underlying empathy with the adolescent subjects of his lesson: “At our entrance into the world” (he writes)

when health and vigour give us fair promises of time sufficient for the regular maturation of our schemes... we are eager to seize the present moment; we pluck every gratification within our reach, without suffering it to ripen into perfection, and croud all the varieties of delight into a narrow compass. (4.227)

15As he proceeds to discuss what he terms “the torment of expectation” and to observe that “a perpetual conflict with natural desires seems to be the lot of our present State”, he softens what otherwise offers a dark lesson about the dangers of youthful aspirations. So characteristic of Johnson, such language makes his tone seem less that of the preacher, and more that of a fellow sufferer. (It thus makes a very revealing contrast to read Samuel Richardson’s guest essay in The Rambler, number 97, which amounts to an almost self-parodic but utterly serious harangue on those perennial complaints, the decline of morals in “today’s” [i.e., 1750s] youth and the need to return to the high standards of their grandmothers’[i.e., Richardson’s own] generation).

16However carefully Johnson examines the shortcomings and problems of youth, he almost always keeps in view the corresponding involvement and responsibility of adults. He takes the edge off Rambler 48 on how the young neglect their health, for example, by reminding older readers that they behaved equally stupidly in their youth. Similarly in number 196, one of his most detailed analyses of youthful shortcomings, Johnson manages to balance the indictment near the end by pairing the youthful failings he cites with their corresponding faults in the elderly; thus, for example, he concludes that “In youth, it is common to measure right and wrong by the opinion of the world, and in age to act without any measure but interest, and to lose shame without substituting virtue” (5. 261).

17More pointedly, in Rambler 25 he blames the failure of many promising students on the treachery of their professors, who either inflate their own importance by exaggerating the difficulty of rising to a professorship or, conversely, flatter their students into thinking it will be easy for them. “Of these treacherous instructors”, Johnson says, “the one destroys industry by declaring industry is vain, the other by representing it as needless; the one cuts away the root of hope, the other raises it only to be blasted” (3. 140). Ramblers 50 and 69 both present elaborate treatments of what in the twentieth century is often called “the generation gap”. Johnson describes it this way:

The conversation of the old and young ends generally with contempt or pity on either side. To a young man entering the world, with fulness of hope, and ardor of persuit, nothing is 80 unpleasing as the cold caution, the faint expectations, the scrupulous diffidence which experience and disappointments certainly infuse; and the old man wonders in his turn that the world never can grow wiser, that neither precepts, nor testimonies, can cure boys of their credulity and sufficiency; and that not one can be convinced that snares are laid for him, till he finds himself entangled.

18“Thus”, Johnson concludes, “one generation is always the scorn and wonder of the other, and the notions of the old and young are like the liquors of different gravity and texture which can never unite” (3. 365).

19Of course not all the essays are as serious as this sounds. In Rambler 65, the one so popular with Murray and McGuffey and other schoolbook compilers, Johnson uses the lighter vehicle of an oriental tale to allegorize life’s journey. In others he resorts to satire, as in Rambler 19 about Polyphilus, the precocious schoolboy who is so talented but whimsical that he cannot settle on a profession and never really grows up, preferring instead (as American undergraduates say) “to keep his options open”. Occasionally the satire comes out of the mouths of the characters themselves, as in Rambler 26 in which “Eubulus” tells how he grew arrogant and self-important at university; having fallen in with a crowd of lazy and shallow young rich boys, he reports, “among men of this class I easily obtained the reputation of a great genius... and was often so much elated with my superiority to the youths with whom I conversed, that I began to listen, with great attention, to those that recommended to me a wider... theatre” (3. 142). Thus inflated with self-importance, Eubulus turned against the uncle who was supporting him, rejecting his well-intentioned advice as “grey-bearded insolence” and declaring it “impossible to bear his usurpations”. As a result, Eubulus was disowned and went on to suffer a series of highly edifying humiliations.

20A more unwitting instance of elf-parody comes in the voice of a female adolescent, in Rambler 191 from sisteen-year-old Bellaria. She opens her letter this way:

Dear Mr. Rambler,
I have been four days confined to my chamber by a cold, which has kept me from three plays, nine sales, five shows, and six card-tables, and put me seventeen visits behind-hand; and the doctor tells my mamma, that if I fret and cry, it will settle in my head, and I shall not be fit to be seen these six weeks. But, dear Mr. Rambler, how can I help it? at this very time Melissa is dancing with the prettiest gentleman; —she will breakfast with him tomorrow, and then run to two auctions, and hear compliments, and have presents; then she will be drest, and visit, and get a ticket to the play; then go to cards, and win, and come home with two flambeaus before her chair. Dear Mr. Rambler, who can bear it ? (5. 233-34)

  • 9 Bate, Samuel Johnson 493-97.

21Here as elsewhere, Johnson’s satire is ultimately without venom and becomes instead what W. J. Bate has aptly termed “satire manque” or “satire foiled”; that is, satire that is constantly turning into something else, whether pity, self-inclusion, or forgiveness9.

22Johnson’s extensive use of the epistolary technique has greater importance, however, than just its capacity for satire. It is remarkable that such a high proportion of the Ramblers about the lives and problems of young people are written in the epistolary form, as fictitious autobiographical letters to the editor in which the characters tell their own life stories: some twenty of the twenty-eight on the list, more than seventy percent. (By contrast, fewer than 30% Ramblers as a whole are epistolary). To a certain degree, the epistolary technique would enable Johnson to render as immediate experience that was in fact quite distant from his own life, such as that of a servant girl (Rambler 12) or the former apprentice to a haberdasher (Ramblers 116 and 123). Perhaps also such fictionalized letters to the editor attract readers by appealing to the human curiosity, even voyeurism, deep in all of us.

  • 10 Basker, “Dancing Dogs, Women Preachers, and the Myth of Johnson’s Misogyny”, The Age of Johnson 3 (...)

23But there is a deeper implication, however unconscious, about Johnson’s use of the epistolary technique in these particular essays. I have recently argued elsewhere, in an essay on Johnson and women10, that Johnson’s extensive use of the epistolary mode to depict women’s experience in The Rambler and The Idler amounts to a rhetorical means of empowerment; it develops a fictive pattern of giving voice to women, of imaginatively enfranchising them and validating their experience by presenting it on equal terms with that of Den. Similarly in these epistolary essays about adolescents Johnson gives voice to another (and overlapping) group of the relatively powerless, those suspended between childhood and adulthood, denied the full status of either, yearning for the benefits of both.

24And here, after all (and despite my earlier assurances), we arrive at politics—although rather than the politics of Hanoverian England, or even those of late twentieth-century academic institutions, it is the politics of the family. Perhaps inevitably for someone of Johnson’s psychological acumen and empathy, the more he examines family life in the course of The Rambler the more he seems to discern a System of power relations, with children —including adolescents— at the bottom.

25In the world of The Rambler, character is made, not born, and parents are shown to be at least as responsible for the foibles and flaws of their offspring as the offspring themselves. Thus in Rambler 109, Florentulus is the only child of a domineering socialite mother who eliminates from his education everything but advanced training in the social graces, so that by the age of twelve he is precociously impertinent in conversation and by fourteen has become a vacuous coxcomb with the social manners of someone twice his age. The result, years later, is a life of arrested adolescence that eventually bores even the social groups who first took him up, and they now reject him. In Ramblers 130 and 133, the young beauty Victoria is raised to prize nothing but her physical appearances, to the neglect of every other aspect of her character and education, with the result that when smallpox ruins her looks she is nearly destitute. Misocapelus, in Rambler 123, is the second son in a family of landed gentry who becomes the victim of an over-solicitous, narrow-minded mother; she stunts his education by apprenticing him to a haberdasher, making him utterly unsuited to manage the estate or function in society when his brother’s death makes him heir after all.

26When not guilty of over-direction, parents sin in the other extreme. The private tutor Eumathes devotes three Rambler essays (132, 194, and 195) to describing the slow ruin of his tutee, a young lord, through the over-indulgence of his parents. Hints of darker parental neglect surface elsewhere, as in the life history young Captator tells in Ramblers 197 and 198. Trained from birth by his conniving parents to be the consummate legacy-hunter, his entire childhood and adolescence are devoted to their schemes. Captator’s parents chose to educate him at home, not out of love but to make him a tool in their designs; unwittingly, Captator reveals the depths of his parents’ heartlessness when he reports a second benefit of this home education: “I gained likewise, as my mother observed, this advantage, that I was always in the way; for she had known many favourite children sent to schools or academies, and forgotten” (5. 267). When their schemes fail, this sad creature is left to lament that (in his words) “I am arrived at manhood without any useful art or generous sentiment” (5. 270).

27For Johnson, the central fact of adolescent life is powerlessness, of being subject to the authority and control of adults who may or may not be exercising that power wisely. Some of his adolescent characters feel their own lack of power acutely and express it compellingly, especially when their judgment seems superior to that of the adults opposed to them. Such is the case with Myrtilla, the sisten-year-old correspondent in Rambler 84, who from the opening line of her letter makes power politics the trope of her complaint: “Sir, You seem in all your papers to be an enemy to tyranny and to look with impartiality upon the world; I shall therefore lay my case before you” (4. 76-77). The appeal she makes to The Rambler is against the oppression of the aunt who is raising her (the loss of one or both parents is often a feature of these stories and compounds the sense of helplessness) and the aunt’s ignorant view that education ruins a girl. According to the aunt, who confiscates Myrtilla’s books and prohibits her from reading or writing, “the consequence of female study [is that] girls grow too wise to be advised, and too stubborn to be commanded” and so the aunt “is resolved” (says Mvrtilla) “to try who shall govern”. On her part, Myrtilla regards herself as “exempted from the dominion of a governess, who has no pretensions to more sense or knowledge than myself’. Like a rebellious colony appealing to an outside tribunal about its grievances against the mother country, Myrtilla asks The Rambler to intervene and decide “the time [or age] at which young ladies may judge for themselves” (4. 80-81).

28Behind the deceptively light-hearted style of Myrtilla’s story, then, and at the heart of the matter, is Johnson’s serious concern about parental abuses of power. It recurs as a theme in any of these essays, but nowhere more forcefully than in Rambler 148 on parental cruelty and child abuse. Here again he compares family relations with the power structures of the State and begins with the premise “that no oppression is so heavy or lasting as that which is inflicted by the perversion and exorbitance of legal authority....” Equally dangerous (he goes on to say)

and equally detestable are the cruelties often exercised in private families, under the venerable sanction of parental authority; the power which we are taught to honour from the first moments of reason; which is guarded from insult and violation by all that can impress awe upon the mind of man; and which therefore may wanton in cruelty without controul, and trample the bounds of right with innumerable transgressions, before duty and piety will dare to seek redress, or think themselves liberty to recur to any other means of deliverance than supplications by which insolence is elated, and tears by which cruelty is gratified. (5. 22-23).

29Further on, the logic of his metaphor and the strength of his feeling carry Johnson to the verge of contradicting his own well-known Tory and Monarchist political views. Quoting Aristotle’s observation that “the government of a family is naturally monarchical”, Johnson adds that “it is like other monarchies, too often arbitrarily administered. The regal and parental tyrant differ only in the estent of their dominions, and the number of their slaves” (5. 25). The extraordinary intensity of Johnson’s feelings on this issue shows itself also when in exploring the psychopathology of parental tyranny and child abuse, he seems unable to conjure up any empathy, any melioration of responsibility, for abusive parents. Perhaps nowhere else does Johnson examine a human failing so closely and remain so sternly unforgiving; the conclusion he offers, starkly, is that “the harsh parent is less to be vindicated than any other criminal” (5. 26).

30Johnson’s sensitivity to the plight of the powerless leads him to pay particular attention to teenage girls. The largest number and the most interesting of his adolescent stories in The Rambler are about the lives of teenage girls and this is because he instinctively recognized that they endure a double subjection, as adolescents and as females. In fact, in such stories as that of Zosima the servant girl (Rambler 12) and Misella the prostitute (Ramblers 170 and 171), a third category of subjugation—that of class—is added to those of age and gender. Overall, more than ten of Johnson’s adolescent narratives are presented in the voices of teenage girls and each tells a story—whether humorously or tragically—of feeling oppressed and victimized by members of the older generation.

  • 11 See for example the frontispiece to volume 2 of the four-volume edition of The Rambler published b (...)

31One of the most striking of these, for its stark depiction of psychological conflict, is the story of Parthenia in Rambler 55. Parthenia tells of her experience growing up the persecuted daughter of a merry widow who vainly seeks to recover her youth by infantalizing and competing with her teenage daughter. The mother banishes Parthenia at age twelve to a boarding school, mocks her adolescent physique with cruel nicknames (“Miss Maypole” and “Madame Steeple”), and heaps abuse on her “as a usurper that has seized the rights of a woman before they were due” (3. 298). Remarkably, in this pre-Freudian treatment of generational conflict, Johnson balances satiric indictment of the mother’s cruelty and folly with compassion both for the daughter’s emotional ordeal and for the mother’s pathetic desperation. It may say something about the popular appeal of this story, by the way, that a series of early nineteenth-century American editions of The Rambler featured a vivid illustration of mother and daughter as a frontispiece, with the caption “The gay widow’s cool reception of her daughter”11.

32The darkest of Johnson’s adolescent lives, finally, is that of Misella the prostitute (Ramblers 170 and 171). Here the pattern of female dependence and vulnerability, followed by exploitation, abandonment, and ruin, is developed in sad detail. Misella tells the story of her poverty in childhood and then her adoption by a guardian who, after supporting her to the age of seventeen, isolates her, rapes her, effectively enthralls her as his mistress, and then discards her to descend to the miserable existence of a Street prostitute. With remarkable empathy, Johnson explores the psychological dynamics of daughterly dependence and affection betrayed by a father-figure, and then the rage, guilt, and helplessness of the fallen woman—all imagined through the mind and voice of the victim herself.

33What gives Misella’s story its force as a radical critique is that it indicts not the wantonness or weakness of the young woman, but the cruelty and meanness of the man—a wealthy man at that. Misella’s narrative maintains a double focus: her miserable esperience and his treacherous behavior. In establishing the latter, Johnson is at pains not only to stigmatize such male predators as subhuman (“Reptiles whom their own servants would have despised”) but to expose the emptiness of their sexual triumphs even by the standards of their own macho codes. Thus Misella’s/Johnson’s voice resonates with disdain:

I know not why it should afford the subject of exultation, to overpower on any terms the resolution, or surprise the caution of a girl; but of all the boasters that deck themselves in the spoils of innocence and beauty, they surely have the least pretention to triumph, who... owe their success to some casual influence. They neither employ the graces of fancy, nor the force of understanding in their attempts; they cannot please their vanity with the art of their approaches... nor applaud themselves as possessed of any qualities, by which affection is attracted. They surmount no obstacles, they defeat no rivals, but attack only those who cannot resist. (5. 138-39)

34Johnson’s Misella, by dwelling on the hypocrisy and culpability of upper and middle-class males—“the establishment”—who abuse their advantages of physical, social, and economic power, becomes a story with potentially revolutionary implications—though of course with Johnson the implications point up the need for a moral, rather than a political, revolution.

35Against the backdrop of such tragic stories as Misella’s, even the most lighthearted of Johnson’s adolescent narratives is darkened by intertextual shadows. Typical of the five or six teenage girls whose main complaint is that they want to get out and socialize is Bellaria in Rambler 191. Oblivious in her chipper innocence, she prattles away about the excessive severity of moralists on relations between the sexes:

I am at a loss to guess for what purpose they [moral writers] related such tragick stories of the cruelty, perfidy, and artifices of men, who, if they ever were so malicious and destructive, have certainly now reformed their manners. I have not, since my entrance into the world, found one who does not profess himself devoted to my service, and ready to live or die, as I shall command him.... Are these, Mr. Rambler, creatures to be feared? (5. 237)

36Through the child’s innocent chatter, the reader sees the trap being set for her and recognizes a familiar situation:

Even Mr. Shuffle, a grave gentleman, who has daughters older than myself, plays [cards] with me so negligently, that I am sometimes inclined to believe he loses money by design, and yet he is so fond of play, that he says, he will one day take me to his house in the country; that we may try by ourselves who can conquer. I have not yet promised him; but when the town grows a little empty, I shall think upon it, for I want some trinkets, like Letitia’s, to my watch. (5. 237)

37Here in another guise, another voice, is the pattern of Misella’s tragedy: youthful innocence, daughterly trust in a father figure, the remove to an isolated place, and the foreseeable consequences of violation and ruin. Afi Johnson urges us to see, it is a pattern latent, unfortunately, in the condition of all adolescent females and one that moved him as a human being and as a moralist more deeply than any other.

38What is achieved, ultimately, by focusing on adolescence as a topic in—and adolescents as implied readers of—Johnson’s Rambler? I hope first of all that it may alter our sense of Johnson, whom we seem to have inherited in the late twentieth century as a cultural dictator, a stern moralist, and a totem of everything conservative, male-dominated, and imperialist about eighteenth-century British culture. To borrow a term from recent critical jargon, I hope this essay may have “problematized” somewhat the received image of Johnson and his writings.

39Second, as I hope to show more fully in my book on Johnson and the common reader, Johnson’s awareness of and sensitivity to the many different subgroups in his readership—whether adolescents, or women, or businessmen, or colonials, or any of several others—support ways of reading him not as a dictatorial but as a more reader-centered, empathic, and often irreverent writer. It is no surprise to me that the father of New Criticism, F. R. Leavis, who shared so few of Johnson’s critical values and certainly nothing of his attachaient to biography and literary history and other extra-textual information as essential to the practice of criticism, nonetheless found one aspect of Johnson’s criticism deeply attractive. Leavis wrote in 1944:

  • 12 F. R. Leavis, Scrutiny 12 (1944): 187.

Johnson’s critical writings are living literature as Dryden’s (for instance) are not: they compel, and they repay, a real and disinterested reading, that full attention of the judging mind which is so different an affair from the familiar kind of homage—from that routine endorsement of certified values and significances with which the good student, intent on examination success, honors his set texts12.

40Like Leavis, Johnson had little sympathy for the passivity of the traditional “good student” who unthinkingly “honors his set texts” and thus acquiesces in critical orthodoxy.

  • 13 Samuel Johnson, Lives of the English Poets, ed. George Birkbeck Hill, 3 vols., (Oxford: Clarendon, (...)

41Thus when one turns to a work such as his “Life of Milton”, to take just one example, one finds Johnson aware of students and other novices in his audience who are about to read Milton for the first time. He says, in commenting on what he calls Milton’s “peculiarity of diction”, that it “is so far removed from common use that an unlearned reader, when he first opens his book, finds himself surprized by a new language”. And in this light, Johnson’s famous irreverent remarks, such as his comment on Paradise Lost that “none ever wished it longer” or on Congreve’s Incognito “I would rather praise it than read it”13, are not critical dicta, meant to persuade critics and scholars (phrased thus, how could they?), but outrageous and consciously iconoclastic eruptions meant to unsettle the “good student” and startle other meek readers into exerting their own critical powers. And there it is again, Johnson seeking to empower a weak or marginal or silent group. In short, I think there is in all this a new way of reading Johnson that restores him more nearly to his original breadth and complexity, and approaches more closely the ways that he was read by his contemporaries and by many generations since.

  • 14 Lipking, “Johnson and the Meaning of Life”, Johnson and His Age, ed. James Engell (Cambridge: Harv (...)
  • 15 Greene’s useful volume contains twenty-four Rambler, together with four Adventurer and twelve Idle (...)

42Lawrence Lipking has recently written that “Of the acknowledged masterpieces in English [literature]... perhaps none has been read through lately by fewer readers than The Rambler14. Indeed, the odds are against it, especially for today’s adolescent readers —the high school and college students whose course reading lists depend on the availability of paperback editions of major texts. Today (June 1993), there is not even a single paperback edition of The Rambler in print and even the best of the one-volume paperback volumes of Johnson’s works (such as the Oxford Johnson, edited by Donald Greene) contain no more than a couple dozen of the original 204 Rambler essays15.

  • 16 T. S. Eliot, “Johnson as Critic and Poet”, On Poetry and Poets (London: Faber, 1957) where Eliot s (...)

43So in the end it would be enough if readers of this essay, like T.S. Eliot who said he was provoked by some of Johnson’s Lives of minor or unknown poets to go and read their works for himself, were persuaded to look again at The Rambler16. In the wake of modem psychology (particularly that of writers such as Erik Erikson) and of the student uprisings of the’60s, and finding ourselves at the close of the twentieth century in the midst (especially in America) of an obsessively youth-oriented culture, we tend to think of adolescence as primarily a twentieth-century issue. But on this, as on so many other topics, when we turn to it we find that Johnson has already been there before us.




#12 — Zosima, daughter of impoverished country family, writes of her struggles to find work as a servant.

#15 — Cleora, teenage belle from the country, finds London society impenetrable, stupidly obsessed with cards and gambling.

#19 — Polyphilus, precocious polymath as a student, never settles on a career, enters adulthood unformed and unresolved.

#26 & 27 — Eubulus tells how he grew arrogant and self-important at university, turned on his well-meaning uncle, was disowned, and struggled to hard-earned hu–ility.

#50 — On the “generation gap”: analyzed with particular emphasis on the ways elders make youthful rebellion inevitable.

#55 — Parthenia describes her predicament as the teenage daughter of an insecure widow who seeks to recapture her youth by infantilizing and competing with her.

#62 — Rhodoclia, just turned twenty, craves the London life her retired parents idealize in their country retreat.

#65 — Allegorical oriental tale; the impatient young traveller Obidah strays from the path, is lost in the wilderness, gets directions from a hermit sage about finding his way in the world.

#69 — On old age and the generation gap, like Rambler 50, though more sympathetic to the older generation.

#84 — Myrtilla, age sixteen, a country innocent, yearns for learning and esperience, rebels at her ignorant aunt’s tyranny.

#107 — Properantia, age fifteen, voices impatience to turn sixteen and enter society.

#109 — Florentulus, son of wealthy parents who spoil him and make him socially precocious, is ultimately disdained by society as a vacuous coxcomb.

#111 — Addressed to the “young and sprightly part of my readers” an essay on the dangers of youthful enthusiasms and illusions.

#116 & 123 — Misocapelus tells of his upbringing, apprenticed to a haberdasher, his education stunted by narrow-minded mother.

#130 & 133 — Victoria, now a young woman, was raised a cossetted beauty, her education and values warpe; her life collapsed when smallpox ruined her beauty.

#132, 194, & 195 — Letters from Eumathes, private tutor, narrating the life of a young lord, spoiled by his family, prematurely introduced to society, corrupted by its pleasures.

#148 — On parental cruelty and child abuse, analyzing its psychopathology and condemning such parents as the worst of criminals.

#170 & 171 — Misella, teenage prostitute, tells her life story, childhood to betrayal by her guardian to her present misery.

#191 — Bellaria, nearly 16, resents her elders’ guidance, aches to play in adult society, unwittingly courts disaster.

#196 — On the generation gap, particular attention to the mentality of youth, its inevitable conflicts with age.

#197 & 198 — Captator tells of his upbringing by avaricious parents, trained as a legacy-hunter who after schemes fail is left a malformed and shallow young adult.


#4 — On fiction, its dangers for the “young, ignorant, idle”.

#5 — A meditation on Spring, addressed to “younger readers”.

#9 — Passage on querulous youth rebeling against orthodoxy.

#10 — Passage on Flirtilla, young socialite.

#25 — Passages on the treachery of teachers toward students.

#48 — How youth neglect health, ignore complaints of elderly.

#93 — Passage on student taste for literary biography.

#97 — Samuel Richardson on declining morals of today’s youth.

#121 — Passage on shallowness of university student taste.

#175 — Passages about ways evil corrupts youths upon entrance into the world.


1 The allusion anses from the occasion of this paper: the international colloquium “Les âges de la vie en Grande-Bretagne au XVIIIe siecle”, conducted under the auspices of the Institut du Monde Anglophone at the Sorbonne Nouvelle, Université de Paris III, December 1990. For their many kindnesses, I am particularly grateful to Paul-Gabriel Boucé, Suzy Halimi, and Allison Manning.

2 By the age of eighteen Mary Ann Evans had read most of Johnson’s works and Boswell’s Life of Johnson; see The George Eliot Letlers, vol. 1, ed. Gordon S. Haight (New Haven: Yale UP, 1954) xiii and 6. Similarly Emerson had been reading various works of Johnson’s since the age of fifteen and would continue to read and cite Johnson throughout his life; see The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, eds. William H. Gilman, et al., 18 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1960-82) passim. See also Luc. y Breckinridge of Grove Hill: The Journal of a Virginia Girl, 1862-1864, ed. Mary D. Robertson (Kent, Ohio, 1979) 153 and passim. For a more detailed treatment of Johnson’s works in the Charleston Society Library’s circulation records and a fuller account of Johnson’s place in early English and American school readers, see James G. Basker, “Samuel Johnson and the American Common Reader”, The Age of Johnson, ed. Paul J. Korshm, vol. 6 (forthcoming).

3 See for example McGuffey’s Fiflh Ecleclic Reader (New York, Cincinnati, and Chicago: The American Book Company, 1879) 343-47.

4 All citations from the first edition of Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (London, 1755), 2 vols, folio. One other entry is of interest to the topic of adolescence:
Teens. n.s. (from teen for ten.) The years reckoned by the termination teen; as, thirteen, fourteen.
Our author would excuse these youthful scenes,
Begotten at his entrance, in his teens;
Some childish fancies may approve the toy,
Some like the muse the more for being a boy.

5 See Boswell’s Life of Johnson, ed. George Birkbeck Hill, rev. by L.F. Powell (Oxford: Clarendon, 1934), 1.49-79, and especially for the Uttoxeter episode, 4.373 and note 1; see also W. Jackson Bate, Samuel Johnson (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975), 129.

6 The Letters of Samuel Johnson, ed. R.W. Chapman, (Oxford: Clarendon, 1952), vol. 1, letters 148, 149, 151, 160, and 170, all of which are addressed to young George Strahan while a schoolboy or an undergraduate at Oxford; for Johnson’s letters to the Thrale daughters, see e.g., vol. 3, letter 839.1 and vol. 3, passim. This edition will soon be supplanted by The Letters of Samuel Johnson, ed. Bruce Redford (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1992), due to be complete in 1994.

7 Bate, Samuel Johnson, 345-46.

8 The Rambler, volumes 3-5 of the Yale Edition of The Works of Samuel Johnson, eds. W. J. Bate and Albrecht Strauss (New Haven: Yale UP, 1969), Rambler 5 (3. 24) and Rambler 111(4. 226). All further quotations are from this edition, cited parenthetically in the text.

9 Bate, Samuel Johnson 493-97.

10 Basker, “Dancing Dogs, Women Preachers, and the Myth of Johnson’s Misogyny”, The Age of Johnson 3 (1990): 163-90.

11 See for example the frontispiece to volume 2 of the four-volume edition of The Rambler published by Samuel F. Bradford and John Conrad (Philadelphia, 1803).

12 F. R. Leavis, Scrutiny 12 (1944): 187.

13 Samuel Johnson, Lives of the English Poets, ed. George Birkbeck Hill, 3 vols., (Oxford: Clarendon, 1905) 1.190 and 183; on Congreve, 2. 214.

14 Lipking, “Johnson and the Meaning of Life”, Johnson and His Age, ed. James Engell (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1984) 20.

15 Greene’s useful volume contains twenty-four Rambler, together with four Adventurer and twelve Idler essays, more than most such collections; see Samuel Johnson, ed. Donald Greene (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1984).

16 T. S. Eliot, “Johnson as Critic and Poet”, On Poetry and Poets (London: Faber, 1957) where Eliot says of Johnson’s Lives of the Poets, “Some of his minor eighteenth-century poets I have read in order to understand why Johnson approved of them”. In the absence of widely available complete editions of The Rambler today’s students might also be like Eliot, ironically, in the need for a well-stocked library in which to find the texts.


Barnard College, Columbia University

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