Posted by: zhiv | December 6, 2008

Adam Gopnick on Dr. Johnson and Mrs. Thrale

I went home for lunch yesterday and foraged a minor feast out of leftovers, and opened up the New Yorker and saw a Ralph Steadman “drawing” (?) of Dr. Johnson and Mrs. Thrale.  Hmmm.

So Gopnick does what a very fine reviewer should, a wonderful job of putting Johnson (and the voluminous writing about Johnson) in context, a nice slant on what we know and what we think, and he brings up two new biographies.  I was disappointed that my friend Helen Deutsch’s “Loving Dr. Johnson” wasn’t in the mix, but it’s a couple of years old now, and I’m not sure that it serves Gopnick’s purposes.  Gopnick seems to dismiss the first of the biographies, by Peter Martin, with barely a glance.  But he says that Jeffrey Meyer’s new biography does a good job of looking at Boswell’s primary blind spot:  Johnson’s relationship with Mrs. Thrale.  And then, well, things get a little freaky.

Gopnick takes his time and lays out all of the relationships and situations very neatly.  We know that Johnson was obsessive-compulsive and weird but lovable and stalwart, funny and cranky, deeply human and larger than life.  Gopnick writes really well in breaking all of this down into all sorts of illustrative details.  Slowly and quietly, with the recognizable drumbeat of a long march into literary biography, he finally gravitates to the heart of the matter, which is the emotional relationship of Sam Johnson and Hester Thrale.  And when you take your time, and move beyond Boswell and put together all of the various pieces as Meyers has, along with others,  it’s rather obvious that Thrale was in a sexual relationship with Johnson that was primarily masochistic, as he was deeply satisfied by her whipping him and causing him pain.  Like I said, freaky shit.  Measured and stately and orotund and right there on the newstand in this week’s New Yorker.

And the tone of the “revelation” is that this isn’t really news, that we knew that Johnson was as complex as it gets, that Boswell would have starred in his own hedonistic rap videos if he had had the technology, the 18th century was wild, and those of us who were really paying attention to the life of Johnson all knew that Johnson and Mrs. Thrale had something going on.  But still.

I just wonder if this is the type of thing that turns around a widespread, general perception.  It seems like Gopnick really doesn’t want to be the tabloid popularizer of the Freaky Johnson meme, but he’s got a job to do.  The Steadman artwork belies the standard reviewer’s tone, as we can’t look at that signature style without noting the Gonzo reference, and it makes us wish that Hunter S. Thompson had been able to spend a few days with the big fella back in the day.   If Freaky Johnson liked the whip so much, how would he fare on a Vegas road trip with peyote and acid and a whole lotta reefer?  Fear and Loathing in Fleet Street, at the Mitre Tavern. You just wouldn’t find yourself asking that kind of question before reading this essay.

Like I said, doesn’t it turn things around and make the end the new beginning?  I remember (and wrote about, a while ago) the excitement of reading a 500 pg. abridgment of Boswell’s Life and finding out that there was more to come.  Johnson and Boswell’s Life seem to be a pure embodiment of English Literature and the literary life of London and the 18th century.  The miracle of Boswell’s book–and Gopnick does a nice job on the surprise and fragile gift of its appearance, from such an unlikely source–seems at times like a just recompense from the history gods for the endless masks and blank slate of Shakespeare.  Of the greatest literary artist, we know little or nothing–it’s all words.  Of the greatest, deepest reader, man of letters, and rumbling, stumbling ink-stained wretch, we know all sorts of personal details, his long struggle, his forceful opinions and razor sharp powers of argument, his likes and dislikes, his character and activities in full.  Dictionary Johnson is the guy who knows more than most of us put together, at least a few decades’ worth of English majors, and we see how he pushed his way through and became a conqueror of literature and language, and we have faith in him.  His quirks and pain and doubt are just part of the lovable lug’s deep, encompassing humanity.  Sam Johnson is the Babe Ruth of English literature.  His record, whatever it is, will never really be broken.  When I was a little kid and loved baseball and learned about Babe Ruth, he was a kid who grew up in orphanage, bigger and stronger than everybody else, he ate a lot of hot dogs and he was a great pitcher and then he started hitting home runs and he became a famous slugger, the greatest ever.  When you’re eight years old and you hear about champagne and flappers and cigars you don’t really know what they’re talking about, and it just seems like the glamourous life of a big hitter.   Maybe kids today know a lot more about hedonistic athletes, but in my life I had to come a long way before putting 2 and 2 together.  But I don’t know if that works for studying literature.  You have to be relatively sophisticated just to hear about Dr. Johnson.  So will it be possible for students of literature, by the time they get to the 18th century, to feel the old hearty enthusiasm in the same way?  Won’t some knucklehead or prig always bring up the whip and the dominatrix?  And won’t professors and teachers feel a certain responsibility to “swim out to it,” as we like to say, thus changing the game? 

There’s a good story about the famous low-budget movie producer Roger Corman and his first LSD experience.  He might have been making The Trip with Jack Nicholson, who knows.  But he was blitzed and sat back and said, wow, I’m really glad I made a ton of money before I ever tried this stuff.  So I guess I’m saying that I’m glad I read Boswell and knew a lot about Dr. Johnson before I ever read about him getting off on the exquisite pain administered by Mrs. Thrale in the stately home at Streatham.



  1. I just finished the article, and I love the way it ended — he does handle the unexpectedness of Boswell’s book beautifully. All this about Hester Thrale is news to me too (I’m not the type to put two and two together very well!), although I do remember some of the passages in the Life hinting that Johnson had temptations of his own. I suppose I’m pretty ready to accept revelations like this because it seems to me that people are a lot weirder and more complicated than we generally recognize, and I think lots, lots more people than we know have secrets of whatever type lurking in their backgrounds. At the same time, while I have admired Johnson, I never quite fell in love with him in the way one can fall in love with long dead authors, so news like this isn’t too shocking.

  2. D-
    Always so excellent for you to stop by, and glad to hear that you share some of my surprise. Did a quick search on Gopnick and find him interesting and worth following a little more carefully and consciously perhaps, and I think he did a great job here. As far as Loving Dr. Johnson goes, we both need to read Helen’s book at some point–no excuse that I haven’t done it yet–maybe I’ll go get it and put it on next year’s TBR list, which I guess I’m supposed to start thinking about at this point.

  3. ‘He was deeply satisfied by her whipping him and causing him pain.’

    Based on what??? You (and probably Gopnik and the biographers) are reading too much into a few stray remarks and taking too much for granted. As far as I can see even Gopnik doesn’t come to the conclusion that Hester ever did whip him.

    Note the ‘unequivocal footnote’ to the remark about women having such power they could tie a man to a post and whip him if they would says ‘This HE knew of him self was literally and strictly true.’ Johnson knew it, not Hester at first hand. And even this could just be an extravagant way of saying women could wrap him round their little finger.

    As a practical matter, when and where could Hester have tied him up and whipped him, in her husband’s very overcrowded household? (I don’t think it was really a stately home, was it?)

    And as a matter of psychological detective work, if you read her Anecdotes, he’s frequently far too tetchy with her than any man would be towards a woman he regarded as a dom.

    The quotes from those letters contain some suggestive imagery to modern minds – but it also isn’t that far from the language of courtly love. Mental chains, not real.

    Johnson was certainly lasciviously inclined, felt guilty about it and fought against it. (Witness him refusing to visit Garrick backstage any more because the actresses’ bosoms and stockings inflamed him.) And he had an eye for a pretty face, and was so smitten with more than one society beauty as to make an ass of himself. But masochistic inclinations, not proven at most. My guess is, he was metaphorically ‘*****-whipped’ rather than literally whipped.

    That apart, an entertaining essay. Gopnik’s too, with a beautiful conclusion.

    As for your Gonzo fantasies… y’know, I can see it actually. Not sure about the peyote, but driving too fast, definitely.

    Sorry this response is a year belated but I hope you post it. I came across this entry after stumbling on a reference to Johnson-as-masochist somewhere else and trying to find out where the idea originated. I really hope it doesn’t take hold because, as you say, it would be a shame for him to be identified with it. Although all writers are masochists really.

    (I’m glad I found this place, anyway, there’s some great stuff. I’m particularly glad to see I’m not the only one who enjoys Mary McCarthy, she’s far too neglected nowadays.)

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