Samuel Johnson: Literature, Religion and English Cultural Politics from the Restoration to Romanticism

Volume 38 (1996)

Reviewed Work(s)

Clark, J.C.D. Samuel Johnson: Literature, Religion and English Cultural Politics from the Restoration to Romanticism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. 270 pp.


Jonathan Clark has described the task of revisionist historians as “to unpick the knots tied by Macaulay and the more complicated knots tied by Marxists such as Christopher Hill.” These historians, he argued, have distorted the past through the cardinal sins of anachronism, teleology, and prolepsis. Clark’s most recent book directs a revisionist eye toward the cultural politics of the long eighteenth century with an emphasis on Samuel Johnson’s career. Students of the eighteenth century all too often accept the triumph of English as the country’s natural mode of expression for granted. In doing so, they forget the influence of what Clark calls the Anglo-Latin culture that flourished until the 1760s and continued into the nineteenth century. Clark thus seeks to recover the Anglo-Latin tradition from a retrospective historiography that dismissed it as a dying idiom that had already given way to English.

The life and work of Samuel Johnson provide the framework for Clark’s study because Johnson’s place in the Anglo-Latin tradition and his support for its political commitments make him its most noted exponent. Using Johnson as his focus also allows Clark to limit what would otherwise be the enormous project of tracing English cultural politics as a whole. It effectively sets parameters that balance Clark’s view of Johnson with his wider conclusions on English culture.

Clark states that Johnson “was a Tory, a Nonjuror and a Jacobite within the meanings conventionally given to those words in the reign of George II.”(p.7) He rejects Donald Greene’s argument that Johnson was essentially an apolitical man whose rhetoric indicated disgust with political fashion rather than an ideological commitment. Greene, a literary scholar, used Sir Lewis Namier’s interpretation of eighteenth century politics as his guide, and the disagreement reflects efforts by Clark and others to expand on Namier’s conclusions. Clark tries convincingly to defend ideology’s role in eighteenth century politics generally, and specifically in Johnson’s career. Moderating his earlier claim in English Society, 1688-1832 (p. 186-7) that Johnson armed himself during the ’45 helps Clark’s argument, and rebuts Greene’s claim that Clark is himself merely a romantic Jacobite.

Johnson’s ideological affinities are important to Clark’s wider discussion of the conflict between Anglo-Latin and vernacular culture. The classical humanism Johnson exemplified reflected the culmination of literary standards and models drawn from John Dryden and other seventeenth century writers as well as the Augustan writers of Roman literature. The age of sensibility and later the Romantic movement broke with these earlier standards and asserted a new emphasis on the individual’s role as an arbiter of taste and judgement. Classical learning, though important, began playing a secondary role after the mid eighteenth century, and opportunities to publish Latin verse or translations faded. Earlier reputations earned teaching or translating the classics faded as writing in the vernacular became the dominant mode of expression.

Anglo-Latin literature stood as part of a political project grounded in Tory and Jacobite sympathies, and, in spite of its pedigree and influence, can be seen as an oppositional culture. The collapse of Jacobitism in the 1740s and 50s marked the Anglo-Latin traditions decline. Clark suggests that this change influenced Johnson’s work and explains the emphasis on criticism rather than poetry in his later years. Many exponents of the Anglo-Latin tradition withdrew from political and literary life by 1760 and chose internal exile. Others, like Johnson, made their peace with the Hanoverian regime of George III and fought a losing battle for their literary and political ideals.

Clark paints an appealing picture of Samuel Johnson and the literary and cultural politics of the eighteenth century. His claims in the reasonable are more modest, and he avoids a tendency seen in his other work to press arguments beyond the basis of available evidence. Clark’s Samuel Johnson is a valuable addition to the scholarship on eighteenth century England that will be of use to scholars in history and literary studies alike.

William Hay

University of Virginia

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