Painting of Samuel Johnson looking down

In Review

Channeling Dr. Johnson

Samuel Johnson, by John Opie (died 1807), given to the National Portrait Gallery, London in 1901. Wikimedia Commons, CC-PD

By Peter J. Gomes

When I returned to Harvard in 1970 to serve as assistant minister in the Memorial Church, one of the reigning intellectual greats in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences was Walter Jackson Bate, whose course “The Age of Johnson” was considered to be one of the greatest experiences on offer; and this was in an age when superb lecture courses flourished, along with their legendary professors. People flocked to hear John H. Finley on the Greek classics, Wilbur K. Jordan on Elizabeth I, and B. J. Whiting on anything having to do with Shakespeare, but Jack Bate was in a class by himself. He made the irascible Dr. Johnson come alive—today we would say that he “channeled” Johnson—and it was through Bate that the old lexicographer and author of the dictionary came to live again in the imaginations of those who sat under Bate’s spell.

In 1975, Bate published Samuel Johnson, the harvest of his years of scholarship, and people not even in his courses went out and bought the book. Most read it and all talked about it, not only as a work of superb erudition but as an accessible book destined to become a classic by a Harvard professor who already was one. I was among the many who rushed to the Harvard Cooperative Society to buy the book, and I read it in a few sittings, finishing in one gigantic push through the night. As I finished the last chapter with some regret, I noticed that the sun was rising, and that hadn’t happened since I had been a college student reading under compulsion; this was an act of pure pleasure.

Bate reminded us that Dr. Johnson had three favorite books, and it pleased me to realize that I had read and enjoyed them all as well, not knowing that the same little library had similarly engaged the great Dr. Johnson. The three favorite books are these: Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe; John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress; and Miguel Cervantes’s Don Quixote.

Over the years I have made much of these books in my talks to freshmen in Harvard College, and their parents, and I think that they form a memorable syllabus for the young as they embark upon the adventure of college.

In Defoe’s eighteenth-century novel of improvisation and survival, Robinson Crusoe is shipwrecked from civilization and required to construct a new world out of the wreckage of the old. We admire his ingenuity, and at first we sympathize with his loss of all that once made his world comfortable, then we realize that he is given the opportunity we all crave: to start again from scratch, to determine what is essential and what superfluous, and to make what we need out of what is available. In Eden, presumably, God had supplied all that was necessary for Adam and Eve to manage the garden. Other than that, few responsibilities were placed upon them, and, apart from sewing aprons after they discovered their nakedness, few demands were placed upon their skills. Crusoe, however, has much more work to do, and we applaud his success. Improvisation and adaptation appealed to the eighteenth-century sense of endeavor and enterprise, and Crusoe improvises from the detritus of the old world necessities and even pleasures that are of service in his new world. Purity and sensibility combine to create a new society free of most of the ills of the old, and bearing the impression of the noble creation that is eighteenth-century man. There is a humanity here of which I approve that serves as an inspiration to those who must make do with where they are and with what they have.

Pilgrim is not much read about these days, and more than one student has confused John Bunyan, the Baptist tinker from Bedford, with Paul Bunyan and his big blue ox, Babe. In Dr. Johnson’s day, however, Pilgrim’s Progress was one of the most popular books in print, second perhaps only to the Bible, and in many ways it was much more accessible. Pilgrim is a man with a book and a mission, on a pilgrimage to a great place, but in order to arrive he must endure many travails. Dr. Johnson’s readers and contemporaries would have known the Slough of Despond and Vanity Fair, they would have had experience of Mr. Valiant-for-Truth, and they would have understood the value of struggle in attempting to reach a worthwhile goal. While they would have celebrated the sense of destination, they would have known—as all good pilgrims know—that the virtue of a pilgrimage is also in the process of the journey, and not only in the arrival at the right place.

In Don Quixote, it is the idealist who appeals to Dr. Johnson. We all know the story of the impossible dream, the quest for beauty and perfection that engages the imagination of the aging knight-errant. Windmills are not the giants he imagined them to be, but often they are worth fighting, for combat is a matter of principle and not of the possibilities of conquest. The Don finds beauty in the strangest of places and most bewildering of forms, and he cannot be dissuaded from his sense of adventure even by the insistent dose of reality dispensed by the realist, Sancho Panza. Ideals are the stuff of youth: the young without them are dead, and the old without them are as good as dead. The world is a place in which one lives, fights, and dies for ideals worth having, and it will not do simply to give in to the pervasive perversity of what appears to be real. We laugh at the Don, we pity and perhaps mock him, but finally we applaud him and are caught up in his causes. It was his capacity for enduring heroism that endeared this fictitious Spaniard to Dr. Johnson.

At the close of chapter 17, Bate writes, under the heading “In the Middle of the Way: the Moral Pilgrimage”:

The three books of which he never tired, said Mrs. Thrale, were Robinson Crusoe, Pilgrim’s Progress, and Don Quixote. “Alas,” he would say, “how few books there are of which one can ever possibly arrive at the last page;” and “Was there ever yet any thing written by mere man” that one could wish longer than these three books? He would have gone on reading them, he would never exhaust them, because here—as in no other works—his identification was almost complete. These three wanderers—one a castaway, one a pilgrim, and one on an impossible quest—were prototypes of what he felt to be his own life.

Bate describes Johnson’s life as a “moral pilgrimage,” and thus one can see why these three books held such an important place in his own development. For the “furnishing of my mind,” in that delightful phrase so much beloved of Dean Samuel H. Miller, I remain deeply indebted to Jack Bate for his gift to me of Samuel Johnson, and of those books dear both to him and to me, with which each rising generation can with courage and imagination set off upon the great journey of life.


Samuel Johnson, by W. Jackson Bate. Counterpoint, 688 pages, $26 paper.

Peter J. Gomes, STB ’68, is Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church at Harvard University.

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