December 18, 2018
t is a truism that good prose cannot be expected from too strict an imitation of the styles of others—and that excessive conformity to past styles is almost certain to be all but deadly. It is a truism set at defiance with style by Henry Hitchings in The World in Thirty-Eight Chapters or Dr Johnson’s Guide to Life. Written in delightfully tongue-in-cheek yet entirely non-satirical imitation of eighteenth century models, Hitchings uses Samuel Johnson’s life as context for a rambling series of reflections on the type of topics the great lexicographer might himself have addressed—including psychology, morality, politics, social criticism, and the literary profession. Chapters titles include “Of personal oddity, which is no obstacle to personal authority,” “A short chapter on politics and public life, wherein the radical John Wilkes does rear his head” and “In which the definition of network provides an opportunity to appraise certain marvels of the twenty-first century, not least the inventions of Mr Zuckerberg.”
More serious and less deliberately resonant of the eighteenth century and Johnson’s own writing is the genre in which The World in Thirty-Eight Chapters was written. Few today are opposed to “critical biography” but such was not always the case. Eminent writers including Jonathan Swift and Evelyn Waugh forcefully maintained that literary works are essentially “external” to their creators: a book is to its author as a piece of handmade furniture is to the craftsman by whom it was made. In both cases, there may be a highly individual aesthetic style but, ultimately, there is little in an author’s or a craftsman’s life that bears on an understanding of his work and little in his work which bears on much of his life. Surprising as it might now seem, that opinion was once accepted (at least implicitly) as almost universally as it is now rejected. And it was not only critical writings of the eighteenth century which gave the theories justifying critical biography considerable traction but, to a considerable extent, the critical writings of Johnson himself which did so.
Johnson’s advocacy of critical biography was due largely to his moralizing. Hitchings admits Johnson moralized to an extreme, sometimes leading to shortcomings in Johnson’s work. He rightly censures Johnson’s criticisms of Shakespeare’s plays on the grounds that they were art for art’s sake rather than art for the sake of moral instruction. He calls attention to the fact that the sole dramatic work which Johnson himself composed, Irene, was both an artistic failure and a failure with the public, being little more than a vehicle for moralizing. And he links this same tendency to Johnson’s impaired ability to appreciate such arts as painting and music (even while pointing out that this impairment was not as extreme as often believed). Hitchings can himself moralize with the best of them but also possess one of the virtues which Johnson rarely manifested itself in his writing—the ability to be lightheartedly witty purely for the sake of enjoyment. As a writer Johnson almost inevitably used wit in the service of moralization or in the making of similarly serious points. Famous sayings of Johnson which in which he exercised “wit for wit’s sake” are almost inevitably taken from the record of his conversations.
Hitchings’s ability to be lighthearted in his writing enables The World in Thirty-Eight Chapters to rise above most critical biographies—which, from a purely literary perspective, tend to be a bit ponderous—as a source of aesthetic pleasure. Bevis Hillier, in the introduction to his biographical trilogy on the life of John Betjeman, put his finger on the reason for this ponderousness: critical biography is “a bastard art-form…which yokes two disciplines that do not belong together—historical narrative and literary criticism.” Literary criticism is usually best enjoyed and understood when organized thematically, bringing in biographical facts when and where they fit into particular critical themes. Biographical narrative is usually best enjoyed and understood when it introduces critical topics only to the extent necessary to understand the flow of its subject’s life. The “yoking of art forms” usually serves only to obscure both biographical and critical topics no matter how excellent the content so yoked. One of the better critical biographies, Bradley Birzer’s Russell Kirk: American Conservative, escapes this by regularly alternating between biographical and critical segments, as though the text of two different books had suddenly been combined and interspersed among each other within a single volume.
The World in Thirty-Eight Chapters succeeds because it does not read like an attempt to use biography as a context for criticism but like a series of tangential critical reflections. These reflections always seem to follow the natural flow of human thought and rhetoric, rather than cram analysis of particular points into a biographical context. Hitchings use of language is truly literary, putting words together in a way intelligent, amusing, and a joy to read. Such attentiveness to rhetoric might have been expected of Hitchings, whose previous books include Dr Johnson’s Dictionary (2005), The Secret Life of Words (2008), and The Language Wars (2011)—all on topics that could only be addressed by a writer either superbly amusing or superlatively pedantic.
Aiding Hitchings’s ability to amuse is the fact that he is more concerned with matters of “external veneer” than was his subject. Johnson was perhaps the only writer in the history of the English language who was able to consistently compose good rhetoric while using the approach of a sledgehammer. And there is no doubt that his preferred literary approach was rooted in the same personality traits which led to his other defining characteristic. He “kicked against the conventions of polite society” and “was either puzzled or amused by refined manners.” He was “beastly in dress” and “looked like a beggar” with “loose clothes and shriveled wig.” And he “treated books with cavalier disregard.” Such attitudes went far beyond an aversion to courtliness and the following of fashion. Johnson not only embraced but trumpeted his embrace of the opposite extreme. Hitchings emphasizes just how great an impediment such traits were to success in the literary world—either at the financial level or at that of repute—even before the ages of photography, television, and the internet have visually exposed writers to a much higher proportion of their public. It was an impediment which Johnson’s genius was more than sufficient to surmount.