The Age of Johnson:
A Scholarly Annual

Preface to Volume 15 (2004)

With this issue, The Age of Johnson completes fifteen volumes. It may be useful to reflect on the state of Johnsonian studies at this milestone, well into the first decade of the twenty-first century, as we approach the tercentenary of Samuel Johnson's birth. Since Johnson was the central English literary figure of the period in which he lived — indeed, he may be the only literary person whose name denominates an entire period — study of his life and works actually commenced during his lifetime, and Johnsonian studies since 1784 fall into three clearly demarcated traditions. James L. Clifford and Donald Greene noticed differences among these traditions in their introduction to Samuel Johnson: A Survey and Bibliography of Critical Studies (Minneapolis, 1970), although they did not recognize three distinct traditions at that point. The first forty to fifty years after a literary person's death, however, form an early period, one during which many commentators may have known their subject personally. The last members of Johnson's immediate circle, Hannah More and Frances Burney, died in 1833 and 1840 respectively; accounts of Johnson and his works by people who had known him accordingly cease by the end of the 1830s. The first phase of Johnsonian studies, then, lasts from 1784 to the middle 1830s. From this period, as Clifford and Greene noted in 1970, there begins a second tradition of Johnsonian studies, one which would endure until the end of World War II. During this second period, the focus of students and the emerging world of scholarly commentators turned from Johnson and his writings to Johnson and his biography, especially James Boswell's Life. From 1835 to 1950, there were hundreds of printings of Boswell's biography, including the substantial variorum-style editions of George Birkbeck Hill and Percy Fitzgerald, but not a single new edition of Johnson's own writings. The substantial undertakings of this century are Hill's edition of Boswell (1887) and L. F. Powell's magisterial revision of it (not completed until 1950); Hill's compilation of Johnsoniana, Johnsonian Miscellanies (1897); Hill's first collected edition of Johnson's correspondence (1892); and Allen Lyell Reade's collection of materials relating to or peripheral to Johnson's life, Johnsonian Gleanings (this work, too, was completed only in 1952). In the decade after the Second World War, however, there was a change in attitudes toward Johnson, a change whose complexion and development demands study. This is the emergence, in the 1950s, of studies of Johnson as a thinker, writer, and person of letters, a writer with an extraordinarily varied career, whose specialties comprised, as his early biographer Robert Anderson had noted in 1795, productions in fourteen different genres. From this period we can date the beginning of the third phase of Johnsonian studies.

The Johnsonian studies of the 1950s are now half a century old. We would like to glance for a moment at some of this scholarship to allow a better perspective on the accomplishments of a great generation of scholars. The 1950s saw three major landmarks in Johnsonian studies: R. W. Chapman's edition of The Letters of Samuel Johnson (1952), the last two volumes of L. F. Powell's revision of Hill's edition of Boswell's Life (1950), and the inauguration of the first complete edition of Johnson's writings, the Yale Edition, the first two volumes of which appeared in 1958 and 1959. James L. Clifford and Donald Greene published the first slim collected bibliography of Johnsonian studies in 1951, and the eleventh and final volume of Allen Lyell Reade's Johnsonian Gleanings appeared in 1952. Critical studies of Johnson also flourished in the '50s — Edward L. McAdam's Dr. Johnson and the English Law (1951), Jean Hagstrum's Samuel Johnson's Literary Criticism (1952), Edward L. Bloom's Samuel Johnson in Grub Street (1957), Donald Greene's Politics of Samuel Johnson (published in 1960, but based on Greene's Columbia dissertation of 1954), and the commemoration of Johnson's 250th birthday, New Light on Dr. Johnson (1959).

The most remarkable year of the decade for Johnsonian studies, however, is 1955, for in that year three extraordinary books appeared. The first, James Sledd and Gwin Kolb's Samuel Johnson's Dictionary: Essays in the Biography of a Book, marked the two hundredth anniversary of the publication of Johnson's Dictionary (Sledd and Kolb is also the only scholarly book on Johnson to have a two-color title page, in imitation of the first six London editions of the Dictionary). The second, James L. Clifford's Young Sam Johnson, was the first modern life of Johnson to be based on the original sources discovered since Powell completed his revision of Hill's Boswell. And the third, Walter Jackson Bate's Achievement of Samuel Johnson, became the first (and thus far the only) critical study of Johnson to receive the accolade of the Christian Gauss Prize of Phi Beta Kappa. This book, as Bate himself tells us, emanates from the tradition of the learned critical essay on Johnson whose documentation was deliberately minimal. From this tradition Bate draws on three models: the writings of Sydney Roberts (there are three collections of his Johnsonian essays, published between 1919 and 1930, with a fourth volume in 1958), Bertrand H. Bronson's Johnson Agonistes, and the writings of W. B. C. Watkins, the only one whom Bate acknowledges.

The Age of Johnson is a project of this third phase of Johnsonian studies, the brainchild of a few scholars who, in 1979, decided that the bicentenary of Johnson's death in 1984 should lead to the establishment of some permanent monument, like an architectural wonder left over from an international exposition. Our first volume appeared in 1987. There is a becoming modesty about the early prefaces, which are seldom more than a paragraph or two; not until our second decade did the editors notice emerging trends and the position of Samuel Johnson in eighteenth-century studies. With Volume 15, we can mention that a quality we noted years ago, our publishing of new essays by younger scholars, continues this year. Four of the essays in this volume represent first or early publications by splendid young scholars: Chris Pearce's study of the contexts of the Preface to Johnson's Dictionary, Jennifer Snead's novel treatment of fragments and The Lives of the Poets, Erik Bond's commentary on the dramatic aspects of Boswell's journals, and Kathryn Ready's study, "Hannah More and the Bluestocking Salons." When a major academic journal devotes a quarter of its space to publishing the writings of young scholars, we can recognize the impact of fresh generations of thinkers about Johnson and his age. We continue our dedication to studies of figures peripheral to but associated with Johnson with Paul Tankard's essay on Johnson and Samuel Foote, Michael Keevak's study of the faker George Psalmanazar, and Amiya Sharma's evaluation of Johnson's interest in India. The last two of these relate Johnson to continents remote from western Europe.

We have fostered long review essays for many years: there are three in Volume 15. Lisa Berglund, in a groundbreaking analysis, contributes the first ever comparative essay on anthologies of eighteenth-century literary materials. David Espey comments on a collection of recent scholarly studies about travel in the eighteenth century. The third review essay, Robin C. Alston's "History of ESTC," places the Eighteenth-Century Short-Title Catalogue in its historical context from the early 1970s to 2003. The ESTC has transformed the way students of eighteenth-century studies approach their subject and has radically altered the questions scholars are now able to ask. Alston here shows how the ESTC Project started and why it has taken its present form; he also suggests what its future may be.

Aulus Gellius tells the story of borrowing a learned miscellany from a friend with high hopes that it would illuminate his own writings, but finding that the comments therein, however learned, had no coherence and hence no value to him (Noctes Atticae, 14.6). A scholarly journal that publishes book reviews annually runs the same risk, yet The Age of Johnson devotes more than a hundred pages a year to this exercise, which we thoroughly index as well as edit. Although we do not try to review every book relevant to the Age of Johnson, we do seek to define what the commentary on this period includes by demanding comprehensive criticism of dozens of major works every year. In this year's volume we continue this tradition.

The acknowledgments of a learned journal should be terse. Two which we are pleased to make this year are our thanks to Loren Rothschild for permission to reproduce Joshua Reynolds's portrait of Johnson (the “Blinking Sam” portrait) in this volume, and the National Portrait Gallery for permission to use the first Reynolds portrait of Johnson on the jacket of this volume. Furthermore, the editors gratefully acknowledge the financial assistance of the Department of English and the School of Arts and Sciences of the University of Pennsylvania.

Paul J. Korshin

Jack Lynch

1 April 2004