Posted by: zhiv | September 27, 2009

91809 — Samuel Johnson, Leslie Stephen and Virginia Woolf

Back to blogging. Lately I seem overly anxious about birthdays and anniversaries. It’s probably just being gunshy after making through the gauntlet of turning 50 (18,262) last November and then celebrating a 20th wedding anniversary on 9-9-09. It seems like it has been a stressful time, although I can’t say exactly why. But Samuel Johnson had his own 300th birthday last week, as he was born on 9-18-09, a bit of auspicious numerology there. That was 1709, of course, and there’s the old style calendar thing, but we’ll leave that be. I haven’t written at all here, for the obvious reason that it would show how nutty I am, about the way that I like to measure out life sometimes in days, rather than years. Years can be very crude and vague and bulky, while the accretion of days is fun to track in its details. And large chunks of days, other than the standard unit of 365, can be very suggestive. My experience and study shows that humans seem to mosey along towards maturity over the first 10,000 days of life (27 years, 2 months), and then the ripeness of adulthood is enjoyed for the next 10,000 days. A goodly span winds out in a final 10,000, twilight gathering slowly into darkness. So I don’t know that I had ever thought to celebrate a 300th birthday before, but these things are especially easy to caluculate–just don’t forget those leap years! So last Friday it had been 109,575 days since Samuel Johnson was born on his own 91809. The first thing that comes to mind is that 100,000 sailed right by at some point, back in 1983, and we missed it. 100,000 days turns out to be a long time, almost three centuries. A lot has happened since then.

And I believe that the day when Johnson was hitting 100k was right at the heart of the period of my most intense interest in him. I was in graduate school and had read an abridged version of Boswell a few years earlier. In an introductory graduate seminar I had worked on Thackeray’s Henry Esmond, his historical novel set in the 18th century. I chose the book at Virginia Woolf’s suggestion, as she wrote that it was Thackeray’s best work. I had been reading George Eliot and Dickens and Trollope, along with Woolf and Austen, and liked Vanity Fair when I had read it a couple of years earlier. In 1983 I was taking a graduate course in 18th century literature, and the focus of my general interests was making a slow turn from the novel to literary biography. Reading Thackeray’s Pendennis, The Newcomes, and The Virginians blew off a lot of the steam of my gusto for the Victorian novel, and I was ready to take a break. Along the way at some point I had discovered that Leslie Stephen, Virginia Woolf’s father, had been married to Thackeray’s daughter. It’s hard to say exactly why this set of connections seemed interesting to me. Perhaps it was the creation of a continuum between the Victorian and Modern novel. By looking at Leslie Stephen’s life and Woolf’s childhood, by studying the sources for To The Lighthouse and Mr. Ramsay, I hoped to gain a deeper sense of Virginia Woolf’s art. The fact that Stephen was a famous mountaineer seemed fascinating and exciting, a rare literary surprise, and it was very much in line with my own interest in the mountains. But it may be that the most important parts of Stephen’s resume for me were that he was a keen student of the 18th century, a pioneering intellectual historian, and a biographer. He was a follower and a fan of Dr. Johnson.

And so I became interested in literary biography, and the connection from Woolf to Stephen to Thackeray reached back through Stephen’s father, Colonial Undersecretary James Stephen, to Macaulay and Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect, right in striking distance of Boswell and Johnson himself. Not exactly on the same side of the street, mind you. I’ve mentioned before how I realized, eventually, that Leslie Stephen buried his revision and extension of Johnson’s Lives of the Poets in his own Dictionary, the DNB, a scholarly project every bit as ambitious as Johnson’s great Dictionary of the English Language. When I think of Johnson and his Tercentary, I find myself thinking of Stephen, and the way that he managed to develop a literary practice and art of his own that was based on Johnson, steeped in Johnson, which even had Johnson as one of its primary subjects, in essays, a short biography, and of course a biographical dictionary entry. Boswell created what Stephen routinely called “the greatest of books” out of Johnson’s life, but it’s hard to think anyone else besides Boswell who did more to honor, study, and analyze and use Johnson than Leslie Stephen. Macaulay wrote his famous essay, and there were editors and other biographers and exhaustive researchers, but Stephen took what Johnson did, and what he believed in, starting with his love for literature and writers, and he made his own life out of it. He steered his course by Johnson’s star. And isn’t it interesting that this acolyte and literary artist, who generally thought of himself as a harmless drudge who would quickly be forgotten, was the father of Virginia Woolf, that (along with her mother) he was her first and primary teacher, that she grew up in his library.

As I count my own days and remember those of others, I like to think of moments that are possible to imagine, back in time. Stephen was addicted to poetry when he entered adolescence, and later in life he did things like recite Milton’s “On the morning of Christ’s Nativity” to his family on Christmas mornings. So he must have been well aware of 91809. And I can picture Leslie Stephen in his writing chair, in his study, the room up at the top of the house in Hyde Park Gate, above the nursery where his children werer raised. That library contained, undoubtedly, shelf after shelf of books from and about the 18th century, and one can only imagine how much of it was devoted to Boswell and Johnson. Once you think of the room and the shelves and the books and the man, it’s easy enough to imagine his precociously literary daughter coming up to sit for a chat, and him telling her about Samuel Johnson.



  1. Very enjoyable notes on Dr Johnson. I’m a big fan, and wrote papers on him while doing post-graduate study at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. Am also a big fan of Simon Winchester.

    all the best,

  2. Did you know that Johnson was a compulsive calculator–he recommended the kind of arithmetic you are doing in this post to everyone, including Hester Thrale’s daughter Queeney, saying it would save their sanity! xoH.

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