Johnson’s Dense Style

This month on our blog author Wayne Jones explores perceptions about Johnson’s writing style and gives a preview of his project ‘My Sam Johnson’. You can find out more and take part by telling Wayne about your Sam Johnson at mysamjohnson.com

I visited the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum this month, and while I browsed the shelves of the bookstore before I made my way out, I overheard a conversation that a couple were having with one of the museum staff. They obviously knew about Johnson, but I was struck when one of the visitors talked about the difficulty in reading any of Johnson’s works because they are written in, as they put it, “Old English.”

They didn’t accurately mean “Old English” in the same sense that linguists use that term of course – for linguists, Old English is the form of the language spoken and written from the 5th to 11th centuries, well before Johnson – but rather that even in Johnson’s English seven centuries after Old English and only three centuries before our own, the language was different enough and Johnson’s writing style was unique enough to make the reading of it often hard slogging for even an educated modern-day reader.

These are the opening lines of perhaps the best-known Old English work, Beowulf, and any non-specialist can be excused for finding it hard to understand:

Hwæt wē Gār-Dena in geār-dagum
þēod-cyninga þrym gefrūnon,
hū ðā æþelingas ellen fremedon.

But apart from the confusion over Old English, one other important thing that the comment from the visitor in the museum bookshop indicated is that many people never actually read any, or very little, of Johnson’s actual writing. They are probably so enthralled by his life story and the many anecdotes and quips as recorded in Boswell and in many biographies since then, that it’s his messy literary and personal life that they are interested in. They know he’s a writer and that’s enough for some people, which is fine – but they’re missing out on some writing of high literary quality, clear and straightforward in some places, very funny in others.

SamJohnson
“Samuel Johnson” by Bunny Glue (2014), after Sir Joshua Reynolds

However, admittedly, Johnson’s prose can also be extremely dense and there are some “tics” of his style that can indeed contribute to making the reading of it difficult without a little slowing down and thinking about the sentences. You often can’t read Johnson the same way that you’d read a light murder mystery, curled up comfortably in your favourite chair. 

I am writing a biography of Johnson called My Sam Johnson which is aimed at the general reader and not the scholar, that hopefully will offer new views (literal and figurative) of the man. Part of the plan for the book is to demystify the supposition that Johnson is unreadable by showing examples of writing from some of his better-known or supposedly more difficult works. These will either be seen to be easily readable by the modern reader – or in some cases I will show how the density of some of his prose is penetrated by close and, yes, likely slower reading.

The twice-weekly series of essays that Johnson published during 1750-1752, The Rambler, exemplify some of the stylistic elements that readers often find difficult. And it is not in fact just modern-day readers. About fifteen years after the last Rambler was published, a Scottish satirist named Archibald Campbell published a book called Lexiphanes, in which he lambasted pretentious and high-falutin’ writing generally, but called out Johnson’s Rambler for particular scorn. It starts right on the title page, where he cites his goal to “restore the English tongue to its antient purity, and to correct as well as expose the affected style, hard words, and absurd phraseology of many late writers, and particularly of our English Lexiphanes, the Rambler.” (Side note: always be wary of anyone who purports to fix English by restoring it to its former glory.) Later he says he sometimes tried to read an essay or two, but “was never able to go through the talk” ­– or, as we would say today, I couldn’t get through it – because he was “disgusted with the pedantry and affectation in every page,” enough to make him throw the volumes to the ground. He goes on to parody Johnson’s style and vocabulary with several sesquipedalian words bunched in single paragraphs, thereby giving his own writing the same alleged pomposity he is mocking. It’s a fun book to read, actually, and the style feels a bit like Jonathan Swift’s at times. Other readers through the centuries after Johnson’s death also criticized his style, notably Hazlitt and Coleridge in the early 19th.

lexiphanes
Title page of 3rd edition of “Lexiphanes,” courtesy of HathiTrust

In my own book, the plan is not only to address, lightly but informatively, the changes in attitude towards Johnson’s style, but also to quote from the Rambler and other prose works. The Rambler may have been “pure wine” as Johnson once said, but many people prefer a sweet fizzy cocktail, and so the challenge will be to demonstrate to readers the logic of his style and to “translate” it so that they develop the ability to do so on their own. My goal is not to trivialize Johnson’s writing or to discount the value of his style, but simply to try to elucidate, to show how style and vocabulary, combined with an impeccable writing ability and powerful rhetorical skills need not be intimidating or impenetrable. You can glean the meaning as well as the method by which it is communicated.

Contributor: Wayne Jones is a former university librarian and now works and plays as a writer and editor. He has published two novels, a book about personal minimalism, and last year co-wrote a biography of an American stand-up comedian. As a librarian, Wayne has edited several themed monograph collections on a range of topics in information studies, and published many articles and book reviews in peer-reviewed journals. Find out more about My Sam Johnson: at waynejones.ca or mysamjohnson.com for more details or follow him @SamJohnsonBook on Twitter. Wayne lives in Ottawa, Canada.

3 thoughts on “Johnson’s Dense Style

  1. I knew you were writing a book about Johnson, but I did not truly understand why until I read this. A slightly trimmed version of this would probably make a great query letter if you were planning to submit this to a publisher. Excellent writing, as always. BTW, I tried to jam your Beowulf paragraph into Google Translate and I think I broke it.

    1. Thanks. And, yes, for this book, I do plan on querying publishers. In fact, given the timelines of said publishers, it’s something I will likely start doing in the early spring.

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