The tercentenary of the birth of first great modernist, Samuel Johnson, has nearly passed with far less comment than might have been expected for the lexicographer known as "Dictionary Johnson," the man known as the Rambler whose essays anticipated Thoreau, James Baldwin and Joan Didion, the urban man in whose dwelling lived a black man, a blind woman, a crazy medicine man and the cat Hodge, the first subject of gossip who understood that table talk is the basis of morality, the greatest subject in the English language of the first true modern biography, produced by his protégé Bozzy, James Boswell.
Perhaps it is the ungainly, unkempt, poorly wigged, wet-eyed sage gazing out of pain and trouble in his friend Joshua Reynolds often redundant portraits which closes the modern eye to the fundament of Johnson's revolutionary significance. Johnson was the son of an itinerant bookseller, a poor man who struggled with facial disfigurement and the necessity of making a living with his pen in an age of fops and fandangos. Happiness, that most ephemeral of goals, eluded him. Once he shared a postchaise north of London with the spirited Whig Molly Aston whose lively eyes, Roman nose and liberal opinions gave him a few moments of joy which he treasured until his deathbed.
Johnson married a widow, Tetty, older, fatter and more slovenly than himself. Another protégé, the protean Shakespeare player David Garrick, delighted in peeking through the keyhole at Johnson's awkward attempt at lovemaking. Johnson was the foe of the smooth and the facile and friend of contradiction and anguish. He understood that life is a barrel of stones occasionally interrupted by the bracing arrival of cool, clear water. "The shepherd of Virgil was at last acquainted with Love," Johnson observed, "and found him a native of the rocks."
Johnson speaks to the great majority of artists in his famous rebuke of Lord Chesterfield, written in 1755. Seven years before, Chesterfield had kept the great sage waiting in the Earl's anterooms for hours before rebuffing Johnson's request for patronage in researching his dictionary. When the celebrated dictionary was finished, Chesterfield immediately published two papers declaring himself Johnson's patron and taking credit for its production.
"7 years have passed," Johnson thundered, "since I waited in your outer rooms, without one act of assistance, one word of encouragement, or one smile of favor. Such treatment I did not expect, for I never had a patron before. . . . No man is well pleased to have his all neglected, be it ever so little." This is the plaint of the great majority of artists and other creative people, who wait upon the favors of those whose only credentials are status and money. There must be a better way.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).