You know what, I doubt whether he’d even get a column in today’s newspapers. No one would dare hire him. If Dr Johnson were writing in modern Fleet Street, his views would be denounced as utterly outrageous. Foreign ambassadors would be constantly on the Today programme, demanding apologies for the insult done to their country.
Polly Toynbee would be in a state of permanent apoplexy. Any newspaper that dared to print his views would face the wrath of the Equalities Commission. It must be admitted – 300 years after the birth of one of the greatest figures of English literature – that some of his stuff can seem outré to the point of unacceptability.
He is not just sexist. He is not just xenophobic. He is a free-market, monarchy-loving advocate of the necessity of human inequality.
Listen to him bashing the Americans. “Sir, they are a race of convicts, and ought to be thankful for anything we allow them short of hanging.”
Ireland? Worth seeing, but not worth going to see. The French – a dirty bunch, blowing into the spouts of teapots to make them pour properly.
As for the Scots, they are mainly liars who had no cabbage until Cromwell introduced it. They subsist on horse-food, and the finest sight a Scottish person can see is the high road leading to England. Not even Simon Heffer would get away with that kind of Jock-bashing, tongue in cheek
Samuel Johnson thought the decline in the use of the cane would harm educational attainment. It wasn’t just that he was opposed to women having jobs. He thought it was a bit off for them even to paint or draw. “Public practice of any art, and staring in men’s faces, is very indelicate in a female,” he said; and as for a woman preaching, it “was like a dog walking on its hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all.”
You might find some Daily Telegraph columnists who still think like that – but not in print. And no matter how odd some of us look in our picture bylines, Dr Johnson was positively bizarre. He had a proud Roman conk and prominent lips, and a small ill-fitting wig perched on top of his head. He had scars from infantile scrofula and an operation on the lymph glands in his neck, and he had lost the use of one eye. He walked with a lurching spasm, and he blurted and dribbled so compulsively that he was turned down for several teaching jobs on the grounds that he would scare the pupils.
He ate with fierce concentration, veins bulging and a sheen of sweat appearing on his brow; and yet he had such natural charisma that women sought the right to sit near him at tea, and men of power would attend his shambolic morning levee in the hope that some pearl would fall from those flobbery lips.
Johnson was so venerated in his lifetime that George III paid him a stipend of £300 a year just to exist. When he lived just off Fleet Street, tourists would come in search of a glimpse, like rubbernecking fans amid the mansions of Beverly Hills. When he died Edmund Burke was among his pallbearers; he was buried at Westminster Abbey, and across the land there were assorted sermons on this doleful event.
Above all his remarks – his squibs, his sallies, his ruminations – were each deemed so individually precious that they were noted down by the Scottish lawyer and patron saint of journalism, James Boswell, and consecrated in a 1,400-page biography, which is itself one of the landmarks of our literature.
Time after time you come across a dictum of Johnson, and you find yourself nodding and saying, yup, that’s us, that’s the human race.
“Almost every man has some real or imagined connection to a celebrated character.”
“Nothing is more hopeless than a scheme for merriment.”
“The safe and general antidote against sorrow is employment.”
“The cure for the greater part of human miseries is not radical, but palliative.”
“Every animal revenges his pains on those who happen to be near.” Of all the lines in Goldsmith’s plays, the most famous was actually contributed by Johnson. “How small of all that human hearts endure/That part which laws or kings can cause or cure.”
There is a lot of thought in that couplet. Many journalists have been paid many thousands of pounds to say the same thing at considerably greater length.
But his prestige and his moral authority derived above all from one superhuman literary effort.
It took 40 Frenchmen 55 years to produce a dictionary of French. It took the Accademia della Crusca 20 years to produce a dictionary of Italian. It took Johnson 9 years to produce his dictionary, and he personally wrote 40,000 entries. When the Victorians began their great oeuvre in 1888, they called it the “New English Dictionary”, and it was new in the sense that it was the first to presume to move out of the shadow of Johnson.
It is an immense thing to be the definer of not just any old language, but the language of what was then the greatest country on earth. It is, above all, an act of fantastic self-assertion, to freeze the great torrent of words as they change and glide through history and say, That’s it. That’s what they all mean, and they mean it because I, Johnson, say so.
He was a genius; he was rated by T S Eliot as a poet of the first rank, and far from being a hard-hearted bigot he was prodigal with money and an abominator of slavery who believed in sticking up for the little guy. He worked tirelessly for the education of his black manservant, Frank Barber. He liberated him from the navy and made him the chief beneficiary of his will.
This country has never produced an author with a better or more generous understanding of human nature.
But would he have been allowed to write a column today, with all his exuberant rudeness? I doubt it.