Saturday, August 29, 2009

Johnson Conference: Recap

Although I was a wuss today and let some rain deter me from trekking out to Cambridge for the third and final day of the Samuel Johnson symposium at Harvard, the two days that I made it to were perfectly delightful. On Thursday morning Nicholas Hudson delivered a plenary address on "Johnson and Revolution" (particularly focusing on Johnson's views of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the changing uses of the word "revolution" over time, and a discussion of Johnson's views of the American and other revolutions).

Also on Thursday morning I attended a really fascinating panel on Johnson and America. As part of that, Thomas Curley (whose books I really must read, and he's got a recent one out on Johnson and the Ossian controversy which is going to move to the top of the list) discussed Johnson's views of Americans (they were not positive) and of colonialism and imperialism in general. Helen Deutsch then discussed a theory that Hawthorne may have been influenced by Johnson's story of doing penance of Uttoxeter Market and drawn on the motif for his portrayal of Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter. Finally, the very engaging and amusing William Dowling discussed Oliver Wendell Holmes' longstanding fascination with Johnson (Holmes' bicentennial birthday is today, by the way), and his conscious modeling of Boston's Saturday Club on Johnson's London Club of a century prior. This paper, delightfully delivered and incredibly well written, might have been my favorite of the conference.

On Thursday afternoon the panel I attended was "Johnson, Boswell, and the Circle." John Radner (who is now writing a book on the Johnson-Boswell friendship) discussed Johnson's early correspondence with three friends (Robert Chambers, Bennet Langton, and Boswell); James Caudle discussed a parallel visit of Samuel Johnson and the poet Ben Jonson to the same manor house in Scotland; and Matthew Rusnak took us into the seamy underworld of London crime with a talk on Johnson's role as character witness in the Baretti murder trial (fascinating stuff, that). Gordon Turnbull gave a lively and incredibly funny response to the papers, which had everyone in the room laughing.

Following the panels on Thursday we repaired to Houghton Library for a look at the new exhibition of highlights from the Donald and Mary Hyde Collection (online version here). It's an amazing show, so do make sure you get there to see it if you can. We were also allowed to purchase sneak advance copies of the exhibit catalog, which is positively gorgeous (and will be available from Harvard University Press later in the fall).

Yesterday morning's panels were given over to the Dictionary: first a plenary discussion and then another follow-up panel of responses and additional comments. Anne McDermott gave a very intriguing paper suggesting that Johnson actually completed a full first draft of the Dictionary around late 1750, but then found himself dissatisfied with the work and just about started over again approximately a year later, taking another "break" after his wife's death and then finishing the work at a breakneck pace in the last eighteen months before it was published. This hypothesis sparked a few tough questions, but all agreed that the evidence is worth examining in greater detail.

Jack Lynch then discussed Johnson's modes of definition, using a numerical analysis of those methods and comparing them to other dictionaries before or since. Many of the funniest parts of this centered on "Johnson's misfires," i.e. where he admitted to not knowing the meaning of a word, or defining it utterly circularly or uselessly ("defluxion" as "a defluxion"), but Lynch's useful beginnings of a method for classifying Johnson's definitions should be very welcome indeed. We also learned Lynch's favorite word from the Dictionary: anatiferous (producing ducks). I like it too. Finally, Allen Reddick examined Johnson's use of John Milton in his illustrative quotations and elsewhere, arguing that Johnson selectively used Milton's language in order to put down the author and "exact revenge" on Milton for his anti-monarchical views.

Friday afternoon's panel was perhaps the most bookish of the lot, featuring some of the biggest names in book history scholarship. Terry Belanger discussed the penchant among English printers and publishers for the folio format (for certain genres of works, at least) as a symptom of the innate conservative nature of the English book trade. He examined the words per page, relative costs and survival rates among book formats, and noted that this talk might be, for him, the first toe "back into the waters of book trade history." James Raven, who could not attend due to a bout of the chickenpox, sent his paper (which Pat Rogers delivered in his stead), which examined the book trade community around Fleet Street during Johnson's time, drawing on his research into the London land tax records. Finally, Paul Baines discussed Johnson's relationship with Thomas Osborne, the bookseller who was supposedly beaten by Johnson (whether with a "great folio volume" or not). Baines' paper mostly centered on the game of "telephone" which morphed the story into various forms over the course of history.

All in all, a tremendously interesting and very well-organized conference (kudos to John Overholt and Tom Horrocks and everyone else at Houghton for doing such a tremendous job!). Dr. Johnson would be proud.

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