“The Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped an Age,” by Leo Damrosch. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019. 473 pages, $30 (hardbound).

When I first received a review copy of this book, I was not sure what to expect and I even doubted that I might want to review it. However, as I was reading the first page of the Prologue, I immediately changed my mind and I have found this book to be both highly entertaining and enlightening, as well as a pleasure to read.

I suspect that most readers who have studied English literature have heard of Boswell’s “Life of Johnson,” but I doubt that many of them have heard of “The Club,” which both men belonged to. Author Leo Damrosch is a professor of literature emeritus at Harvard whose previous works include “Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius,” “Tocqueville’s Discovery of America,” “Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World” (a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in biography), and “Eternity’s Sunrise: The Imaginative World of William Blake.”

“The Club” is a group biography of several fascinating individuals who excelled in a wide variety of fields in late-18th century England and Scotland. The group held weekly meetings at the Turk’s Head Tavern in London and included Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, Edmund Burke, Edward Gibbon and Adam Smith, arguably according to Damrosch “the greatest British critic, biographer, political philosopher, historian and economist of all time.” When one adds painter Joshua Reynolds, botanist Joseph Banks, playwrights Richard Brinsley Sheridan and Oliver Goldsmith, and actor David Garrick, one can see that the group had an amazing assortment of talented men and their collective story provides valuable insight into a world that continues to have cultural ramifications up to the present time.

The author explains that the Club had its origins in 1763 when Reynolds was concerned about the health of his friend Johnson, who had produced the famous Dictionary of the English Language a decade earlier, but whose edition of Shakespeare’s plays had fallen behind schedule and who periodically fell into bouts of deep depression. Reynolds knew Johnson loved conversation and taverns and started the group, which met regularly on Friday nights, to help raise Johnson’s spirits. Damrosch points out that Johnson also participated in a kind of “shadow club” that included women, notably Hester Thrale, at whose house he lived for many years, and that this social circle actually had more to do with rescuing Johnson from depression. The author says Johnson had some strange physical mannerisms that today would probably be diagnosed as obsessive compulsive disorder. He then inserts Boswell’s assessment of Johnson: “His mind resembled the vast amphitheatre, the Coliseum at Rome. In the center stood his judgment, which, like a mighty gladiator, combated those apprehensions that, like the wild beasts of the arena, were all around in cells, ready to be let out upon him. After a conflict he drove them back into their dens; but not killing them, they were still assailing him.”

When Samuel Johnson was an infant a wet nurse infected him with scrofula and his mother took him to London for the annual “touching for the King’s Evil.” Queen Anne, the last monarch to perform that ritual, gave him a small amulet on a chain that he wore around his neck for the rest of his life. As an adult, Johnson took about nine years to produce his Dictionary of the English Language in 1755 with about 40,000 entries and about three times that number of illustrative quotations. Johnson wanted to show all the ways that words had ever been used and to include examples from earlier writers to illustrate their usage. Johnson therefore invented the system for defining words that would be carried on in recent times by the Oxford English Dictionary.

James Boswell was a Scot who learned very early to take very detailed notes in a journal, and this skill would serve him very well in his later biography of Johnson. Boswell said of his journal: “In this way I shall preserve many things that would otherwise be lost in oblivion.” One problem, however, was that Boswell could never resist being the life of the party. Boswell went to see a public hanging of a highwayman in 1763 and “was thrown into a very deep melancholy” as a result. Damrosch points out that in late 18th-century England, there were at least 250 crimes for which death was the penalty and most of these were crimes against property. By 1850, there were only two crimes calling for that penalty. In 1763, Boswell met Johnson and a friendship was forged that lasted until Johnson’s death in 1784. Boswell relied on Johnson for the “advice, encouragement and love” that he never got from his own father. When Boswell took his “Grand Tour” he was received by both Rousseau and Voltaire. The author points out very effectively that though Boswell was intelligent he was not an intellectual and his comments document that he seriously misunderstood Rousseau’s thoughts.

Reynolds and Johnson formed the Club in 1764 with seven other members and soon adopted rules that election to membership had to be unanimous and that a single blackball would block a candidate. When Boswell returned to England in 1766, he was desperate for inclusion, but he was not elected until 1773. Although he was well liked, he was seen as a relative lightweight when compared with most of the Club’s members. Damrosch mentions that wine was the beverage of choice at the Club and that ale and beer were an indulgence of the lower classes. He says that when Benjamin Franklin worked briefly in London, he was critical of one of his companions who “drank every day a pint before breakfast, a pint at breakfast with his bread and cheese, a pint between breakfast and dinner, a pint at dinner, a pint in the afternoon about six o’clock, and another when he had done a day’s work.” Of the 42 Club members elected in the first 20 years, only three were peers. Most were from the middle class, though that term was not used for them at this time. A majority of the members were self-made men and Sir Joshua Reynolds climbed to eminence and immense wealth as a portrait painter.

The author points out that England in this period was a minimalist state and that many things we today expect of a government, such as “fire protection, highway maintenance, water supply, managing jails” were cared for by private enterprise, if they existed at all.

Edmund Burke, one of the founding Club members, published in 1790 his “Reflections on the Revolution in France,” “in which he foretold brilliantly how even the most well-intentioned revolution was likely to lead to a bloodbath and then the emergence of some charismatic dictator.” Whereas Johnson believed that the Americans had the right to submit petitions, but not to vote or rebel, Burke spoke out publicly against the Tea Act, and he and Boswell both sided with the Americans and had to try to avoid discussing the colonies around Johnson, lest the conversation be “charged with sulphureous vapour, which was afterward to burst in thunder.”

However, on the consequences of colonization, Johnson said: “The Europeans have scarcely visited any coast but to gratify avarice and extend corruption; to arrogate dominion without right, and practice cruelty without incentive.”

Damrosch acknowledges the contributions of several museums and libraries which allowed him to reproduce illustrations of their works of art without charge. His 93 black and white images are very useful in bringing to life many of the people and places included in the biography. His 31 color plates, however, are the most beautiful that I have ever seen. Most of them are portraits of the individuals mentioned, but there are also street scenes in London and pictures of buildings that are absolutely lovely. Damrosch also includes a list of Club members during its first 20 years (1764-1784), detailed notes and an index. Damrosch says: “This book seeks to bring to life the teeming, noisy, contradictory and often violent world of eighteenth-century London.” He achieves that goal admirably and I fully expect this book to win the Pulitzer Prize for biography. It is quite simply a marvelous piece of work!

– Reviewed by Richard Weigel, History Department, Western Kentucky University.


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