There’s a fascinating new exhibition in the Dunedin Public Libraries, which has the largest collection of Johnsoniana outside of my office in Australasia. (I jest: my office has some Johnsoniana, of course, but nothing rare or even out of the ordinary.)

Not only does the exhibit itself look quite good, but there is video of Paul Tankard, a very accomplished Johnsonian, introducing Johnson’s lasting appeal as the result of being a profound thinker on very ordinary, everyday things. Like smoking as a pastime. It’s worth a view:

Sadly, the second part, which the exhibition page promises is on the Library’s youtube channel, is not found there. Maybe they’ll correct that in the near future.

One of the things that I like very much about this lecture is the way it attempts to explain the ongoing appeal of Samuel Johnson. Tankard is right that scholars tend to pickle a lot of things, which is after all what we’re supposed to do. Johnson, however, still finds readers outside the academy. Just the other day, I ran into a former student, and she told me that of all the books we read in my standard Restoration and Eighteenth-Century course, it was Johnson’s Rasselas that she remembered best. Which is exactly what Tankard is driving at. I’ve taught Rasselas to freshmen and parceled the reading out over several classes to give them time to tackle Johnson’s lengthy sentences–only to find that they became so interested in the book that they finished it before the first class period. Tankard mentions the collector whose interest in Johnson led him to gather together many of the items on display in the exhibition.

Tankard claims that Johnson has this appeal because he brings his mind to bear even on the smallest aspects of life. Like smoking, which Johnson saw was a way people have found to pass the time. Johnson looked at life as a moralist, and while he holds strong opinions on the good life, he’s also surprisingly non-judgmental. Unlike so many intellectuals today–and I’ve been guilty of this myself–Johnson understands that not everyone can be a thinker or a reader. Long before Myers-Briggs, he grasped that there were a variety of human types, and he never privileges the intellectual life in his work. In fact, he tends to deprecate it or to de-romanticize it. Consider the passage above, from which the title of this blog is taken, where Johnson neatly deflates the idealization of the writer as a kind of superior being. Perhaps in the book, Johnson admits, he is, but come into his company and you will find that he’s as perplexed and inconsistent as the rest of us. In Rasselas, there’s a famous quote: “Be not too hasty to trust or to admire the teachers of morality: they may discourse like angels, but they live like men.”

Probably most good teachers also take into account this disparity of human types and pitch their lectures accordingly. It’s probably good for us to be reminded of this. Most scholars lean towards historicism of one sort or another; it’s the nature of studying the past. But Poliziano, one of the founders of historical criticism, frankly admitted that his work had little interest for anyone outside a small circle of fellow scholars and antiquarian patrons, and I can confirm that from my classroom experiences. Nothing kills the interest of a class quite like a teacher who drones on in minute, comparative detail. In the video above, on the other hand, it’s fascinating to watch how Tankard brings Johnson vividly before us.

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