The Love of Truth:
Johnson and Literary Fraud

By Jack Lynch,
Rutgers University

Delivered 25 March 1999 at ASECS in Milwaukee


In the manuscript of Boswell's Life of Johnson for May 1776 appears the following exchange, interesting for the light it sheds on Johnson's attitude toward literary deception:
We spoke of Chatterton. BOSWELL. "Has not, Sir, his poetry a claim on our esteem for its poetical spark?" JOHNSON. "No, Sir; whatever claim he had on our esteem he forfeited through his imposture. His poetical spark is extinguished by his disregard for truth. Chatterton's poetry can no more be beautiful than Ossian's; both are calculated to deceive credulity. There is no pleasing deception, for no man will willingly be deceived. No, Sir; his productions merit no commendation."
This passage is illuminating for several reasons: first, it suggests that Johnson thought of Chatterton and Macpherson as engaged in the same fraudulent enterprise; second, it shows the degree to which Johnson's aesthetics are bound up in his epistemology. But the most noteworthy thing about the passage is that Johnson never said it, nor did Boswell ever record it -- I created it out of whole cloth for this paper. I've been naughty.

Since undue modesty has never been among my failings, I'll take a moment to boast that mine is a reasonable counterfeit. The diction and the syntax aren't a bad approximation of Johnsonese, or at least Boswell's version of it. And notice that I placed it in the unpublished manuscript of the Life; only a handful of people with access to the originals at Yale could possibly catch me out. But although I can grin a grin of self-satisfaction at having pulled one over on my audience, I know of at least one person who wouldn't approve -- Johnson himself. At least that much of my invented speech is accurate: he was thoroughly unwilling to be deceived. For him, few things were of greater urgency than distinguishing the real from the spurious. Deception and detection colored the way he looked at the world.

And Johnson knew from deception. In an age crowded with remarkable literary hoaxes, few people had contact with more of them than he. Johnson was involved in nearly all the noteworthy fakes of his day, and in a multitude of roles. To the bullying antiquarian Macpherson, he played debunker; to the suicidal prodigy Chatterton, a skeptical inquirer; to the convicted forger Dodd, a consoler; to the penitent ex-Formosan Psalmanazar, a friend. And though he's best known for being on the side of righteousness, he in fact several times strayed to the dark side -- both unwillingly, when Lauder convinced him publicly to defend his lies about Milton's plagiary, and willingly, when as a young hack he passed off his own debates in Parliament as the actual words of Walpole and Pitt -- though later "he disapproved the deceit he was compelled to practice."


That disapproval of deceit is, I argue, one of the keys to Johnson's intellectual character. Hester Thrale, in recounting Johnson's unwitting involvement in the Lauder controversy, notes that Johnson's "ruling passion may be said to be the love of truth," an assessment echoed by many of his acquaintances. Hawkins observed that "His notions of morality were so strict, that he would scarcely allow the violations of truth in the most trivial instances,"1 and Boswell adds that "The importance of strict and scrupulous veracity cannot be too often inculcated. . . . Johnson was known to be . . . rigidly attentive to it."2 Murphy concurs: "Johnson always talked as if he was talking upon oath."3

Indignation at misrepresentation of any sort fills his works as well as his conversation, informing his comments on the status of fiction, fantastic narratives (including travel writing), and especially literary attribution -- including not only forgery and plagiary, but even anonymous or pseudonymous publishing. He scolded Joseph Warton for his anonymous Essay on Pope, "That way of publishing . . . is a wicked trick."4 His career amounts to a prolonged assault on falsehood and its necessary complement, credulity: "Credulity on one part," he writes, "is a strong temptation to deceit on the other."5

It may be useful to review his involvement in a few specific cases, beginning with the most notorious of the lot. His dismissal of Ossian in the Journey to the Western Islands is well known: "The editor, or author, never could shew the original; . . . to revenge reasonable incredulity, by refusing evidence, is a degree of insolence, with which the world is not yet acquainted."6 Here he invokes a legal principle coming into its own at mid-century, the best-evidence rule. As the legal theorist Geoffrey Gilbert formulated it in 1756, "If it be plainly seen . . . that there is some more Evidence that doth not appear, the very not producing of it is a Presumption, that it would have detected something more than appears already."7 (It's worth noting that legal discourse is never far from discussions of literary duplicity; the two seem to influence one another.)

Macpherson's modern partisans delight in pointing out where Johnson's critique missed the mark: he was convinced that no significant body of poetry could survive oral transmission. We, with the benefit of Milman and Parry's insights, know better. But it's wrong to blame Johnson, for although he placed undue emphasis on manuscripts, it's only because Macpherson insisted on them equally strongly. Johnson was wrong about the exact nature of the imposture, but right about the larger question; if Macpherson wasn't properly a forger, he was at least a brazen liar. Johnson's dislike of this deception was strong enough to make him dislike the poetry as well: "The poem of Fingal, he said, was a mere unconnected rhapsody, a tiresome repetition of the same images."8 Like his contemporaries, Johnson refused to distinguish aesthetic worth from authenticity when it came to the Ossianic poems.

The second most famous of eighteenth-century fakers interested Johnson less than the first, though when he and Boswell traveled to Bristol in 1776, they investigated the Chatterton case with some care. The romantic myth of the misunderstood genius driven to despair by a narrow-minded establishment hadn't yet been firmly established, and in any case it's unlikely Johnson would have lent it much credence. But even Johnson could compare the pathetic and feckless teenager from Bristol with the surly and petulant Scot, whose threats of bodily harm in a "foolish and impudent letter" prompted Johnson to carry what Hawkins calls "an oak-plant of a tremendous size,"9 six feet long and three inches across. So Johnson's comments on Chatterton are less indignant than patronizing: "This is the most extraordinary young man that has encountered my knowledge. It is wonderful how the whelp has written such things."10 But by no means did this amount to approval: he found "this wild adherence to Chatterton more unaccountable than the obstinate defence of Ossian."11

He did, it's true, sometimes find himself on the wrong side of the law. As Hester Thrale writes, "Johnson was induced by the arts of a vile impostor to lend his assistance, during a temporary delusion, to a fraud not to be paralleled in the annals of literature."12 The "vile impostor" was William Lauder, who convinced Johnson to join him in denouncing Milton as a shameless plagiary. It turned out, of course, that the villain was not Milton but Lauder himself, and Johnson was publicly embarrassed for his involvement. But as Thrale noted in defence of her friend, "If Johnson approved of the argument, it was no longer than while he believed it founded in truth."13 When he discovered that Lauder had cooked the books, he composed a sincere confession, which Lauder marred by appending a self-righteous justification.

But it's not merely a matter of righteous indignation; Johnson could be stern, but he could also be forgiving, even understanding. Psalmanazar -- the blond-haired, blue-eyed Frenchman who managed against all odds to pass as a native of Formosa in 1704 -- later evinced sincere contrition, and Johnson found him "the best man he had ever known. . . . George Psalmanazar's piety, penitence, and virtue exceeded almost what we read as wonderful even in the lives of saints."14 And he threw all his weight behind the hopeless cause of William Dodd, a clergyman convicted to hang at Tyburn for forging bonds of credit worth £600 from Lord Chesterfield. Dodd summoned in him what Hawkins called "that indiscriminate humanity, which, in him, was obedient to every call."15

But whatever palliation of the crimes he saw in these individual penitents, he never stopped denouncing their sins. "The great rule, by which religion regulates all transactions between one man and another," he declared in a sermon, "is, that every man 'should do to others what he would expect that others,' in the same case, 'should do to him.' This rule is violated in every act of fraud."16 Even more pointed is Adventurer 50:

The liar, and only the liar, is invariably and universally despised, abandoned, and disowned; he has no domestic consolations, which he can oppose to the censure of mankind; he can retire to no fraternity where his crimes may stand in the place of virtues; but is given up to the hisses of the multitude, without friend and without apologist.17


The vehemence of this spirited blast is perhaps unmatched in Johnson's works. Why such ire? We can explain it simply with reference to Johnson's Christian morality: as Proverbs 12:22 puts it, "Lying lips are abomination to the Lord; but they that deal truly are His delight." But that doesn't go far enough; no Christian moralist has gone on record as an advocate of mendacity, but few have been such tireless crusaders for truth as Johnson.

Chicanery is of course both universal and perennial. Anthony Grafton begins his survey with some of the oldest surviving fragments from Egypt's Middle Kingdom, and every few years we're treated to new cases ranging from the Hitler diaries through the lip-synching antics of Milli Vanilli. But it may be more productive to talk about these eighteenth-century forgeries in a specifically eighteenth-century context, to try to understand what made the age so productive of famous fibbers, and what made Johnson such a resolute debunker of their fictions. And I think the most productive of the many possible contexts may be Lockean epistemology. Deception and its detection are in fact among the central preoccupations in eighteenth-century philosophy; Locke, Berkeley, and Hume all address it in their own way. The question is, what happens when someone maliciously scribbles graffiti on our tabulae rasae? For if all knowledge is a posteriori, our ability to know anything at all depends on the truth of our experience.

Locke's famous metaphor of a blank slate, however appropriate for perception, is less fitting for the other Lockean faculty, reflection. Reflection allows us to reorganize our perceptions, to connect them to one another, and to build them into structures. Better than a slate, then, might be a more three-dimensional metaphor, perhaps something architectural, or at least children's building blocks, which can be rearranged and built into structures. And a useful implication of this metaphor is its recognition that ideas depend on one another for their positions. If, after one of these stacks of mental building blocks has been created, we discover that the bottom block is bogus, the whole tower comes crashing down -- or at least has to be painstakingly disassembled and reassembled.

Johnson's resentment at fraud, I argue, comes from his realization that having our mental towers tumble will eventually discourage our attempts to rebuild, or even to build them at all. Charlatans take advantage of a necessary faculty in us: "The nature of fraud, as distinct from other violations of right or property," Johnson speculates, "seems to consist in this, that the man injured is induced to concur in the act by which the injury is done."18 And in Rasselas, he explains why this is a problem. When Nekayah and Pekuah consider assuming false identities to insinuate their way into the astronomer's company, Rasselas chastises them:

I have always considered it as treason against the great republick of human nature, to make any man's virtues the means of deceiving him, whether on great or little occasions. All imposture weakens confidence and chills benevolence. . . . The distrust, which he can never afterwards wholly lay aside, may stop the voice of counsel, and close the hand of charity.19
That is to say, fakery dampens faith. As he explains in Rambler 79, "Whoever commits a fraud is guilty not only of the particular injury to him whom he deceives, but of the diminution of that confidence which constitutes not only the ease but the existence of society."20 He gets to the heart of the problem in Adventurer 50: "When Aristotle was once asked, what a man could gain by uttering falsehoods; he replied, 'not to be credited when he shall tell the truth.'"21

Fraud, in other words, deters us from trusting our perception and exercising our reflection; it forces on us a skepticism approaching pyrrhonism. Watching our building blocks tumble one too many times discourages us from playing with our blocks at all. And this sort of intellectual indolence terrified Johnson. Though he was almost never naively credulous about anything, unwarranted skepticism about important matters was one of his recurring fears, as his prayers make clear: "Let me not linger in ignorance and doubt," he asked God; and later, "Deliver me, gracious Lord from the bondage of doubt."22 Thus he turns to Browne to find a "method of encountering these troublesome irruptions of skepticism, with which inquisitive minds are frequently harassed."23 Preventing such skepticism is for him a moral obligation: "It is our duty not to suppress tenderness by suspicion; it is better to suffer wrong than to do it, and happier to be sometimes cheated than not to trust."24

That's the real source of the indignation: it reduces us to a state of perpetual doubt, and teaches us not to trust. With Johnson, therefore, epistemology slides easily into moral philosophy. Whereas Locke defines falshood as "the marking down in Words, the agreement or disagreement of Ideas otherwise than it is," Johnson's first definition of false is "Not morally true." The sin of Macpherson, Chatterton, and other members of their nefarious fraternity is the weakening of confidence in anything we want to believe. Johnson, finally, leaves us in no doubt that at least this sort of literary perjury is an impeachable offense. As he said to Boswell, "Macpherson's misdeed, Sir, is that he has diminished our confidence in the reports of genuine ancient poetry, and has thereby retarded learning from its proper course." Well, okay, he didn't say that either, but he might have.


1. Hawkins, The Life of Samuel Johnson, vol. 1 of The Works of Samuel Johnson, 11 vols. (London, 1787), p. 123.

2. Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, ed. G. B. Hill, rev. L. F. Powell, 6 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1934-64), 2:434.

3. Boswell, Life, 2:434 n. 2.

4. Letter to Joseph Warton, 15 April 1756; in The Letters of Samuel Johnson, ed. Bruce Redford, 5 vols. (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1992-94), 1:133-34.

5. Hawkins, Life, p. 489.

6. A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, ed. Mary Lascelles, vol. 9 of the Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1971), p. 118.

7. Geoffrey Gilbert, The Law of Evidence (London, 1756), pp. 4-5; cited in Alexander Welsh, Strong Representations: Narrative and Circumstantial Evidence in England (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1992), p. 14.

8. Boswell, Life, 2:126.

9. Hawkins, Life, p. 491.

10. Boswell, Life, 3:51.

11. Letter to Malone, 2 March 1782; Letters, 4:14.

12. Hester Thrale Piozzi, Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson (London, 1786), p. 393.

13. Anecdotes, p. 395.

14. Johnson Miscellanies, ed. G. B. Hill, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1897), 1:266.

15. Hawkins, Life, p. 520.

16. Sermons, ed. Jean H. Hagstrum and James Gray, vol. 14 of the Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1978), p. 198 (Sermon 18).

17. The Idler and the Adventurer, ed. W. J. Bate, J. M. Bullitt, and L. F. Powell, vol. 2 of the Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1863), p. 361.

18. Sermon 18, in Sermons, pp. 196-97.

19. Rasselas and Other Tales, ed. Gwin J. Kolb, vol. 16 of the Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1990), pp. 158-59.

20. Rambler 79, in The Rambler, ed. W. J. Bate and Albrecht B. Strauss, vols. 3-5 of the Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1969), 4:55.

21. Idler and Adventurer, p. 360.

22. "Prayer on Study of Religion" and birthday prayer for 1766, in Diaries, Prayers, and Annals, ed. E. L. McAdam with Donald and Mary Hyde, vol. 1 of the Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1959), pp. 62, 110.

23. Life of Browne, in The Works of Samuel Johnson, 11 vols. (Oxford, 1825), 6:498.

24. Rambler 79, 4:55.