Reviewed by Norrie Sanders
What would you make of a club that is exclusively male, meets in a common tavern, shuns a supporter for marrying a Catholic, and admits adulterers, pornographers, infidels and scoundrels? Many would predict few members and a short life. The former is true but certainly not the latter. This particular club was founded in 1763 and still functions with the “new” name of the London Literary Society.
The Literary Club (later just the Club) was established in 1764 by the painter Joshua Reynolds and writer Samuel Johnson as an informal gathering of nine “convivial and interesting friends” , all men, for weekly conversations at a private room in the Temple hotel. In part, it was an attempt to help Johnson with recurring bouts of depression. New members were admitted in subsequent years by unanimous vote – ensuring exclusivity. Amongst the initial nine were politician and orator, Edmund Burke and the playwright Oliver Goldsmith.
The Club arrives in Chapter 7, preceded by background biopics on Johnson and his (later) biographer James Boswell. The Club appears sporadically after that, but the majority of the chapters follow the (mostly) separate lives of Boswell and Johnson, with separate chapters for condensed biographies of Reynolds, Burke, David Garrick (actor), Adam Smith (economist) and Edward Gibbon (historian).
Johnson boasted of their individual accomplishments (“a society which can be scarcely matched in the world” ) but many were comparative non-entities of “modest distinction” , though as “companions and conversationalists nearly all of them were remarkable…” .
The Club is somewhat of a misnomer, because most of the action takes place outside the club and there is no evidence that some of its member’s most famous publications were materially influenced by their attendance at the Club? For example, Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. Indeed, Damrosch reports that Gibbon was loathed by Johnson, who strongly criticised his historical writings about Christianity. Likewise, Smith was disliked by Johnson and generally preferred not to engage in conversation at the club.
The link between Edmund Burke and Adam Smith, possibly one of the most important connections that the club may have facilitated, remains unclear. Both have come to be giants in their own constituencies – Burke as the fathers of modern conservatism and economics respectively. We know from other sources that both thought highly of each other and there was some degree of mutual influence.
The subtitle of the book is also somewhat misleading. Many members of the club demonstrably did not “shape the age”. And some of those who arguably did, rate little or no mention – the esteemed botanist, Sir Joseph Banks, being a conspicuous example.
This is not to a shortcoming of the book, only of its title and branding. Damrosch has assembled a fascinating history that focuses on the late 1700s, but covers the century from the birth of Johnson until the death of Boswell. The web of memorable characters is complemented by a detailed depiction of life in eighteenth century London and beyond. It slices through layers of class, religion and profession, often dropping the reader into a London pub or a stagecoach as if we had arrived by Tardis. Great care has been taken in assembling drawings and paintings that assist in the re-creation. The map of Johnson’s London was wonderful and shows just how small an area can produce so many world changing ideas.
This is a warts-and-all presentation of Johnson and Boswell, and many others around them. He also delves into the character and influence of several women who were significant factors in Johnson’s life. By 1778, the Club was growing by a few members each year, but “Johnson felt strongly that the whole point of the group had been forgotten; he attended only occasionally” . Indeed, there is a “shadow club”  of mixed gender that Johnson soon prefers over the literary Club. One of the attractions for him was Mrs Hester Thrale, a capable and intelligent woman who became his friend, hostess, confidant and therapist.
The other question is why so much space is devoted to the execrable Boswell at the expense of other much worthier men and women? Damrosch doesn’t hesitate to give chapter and verse on his many shortcomings – adultery is bad enough but attempted rape? Even the club members regard him lowly, only agreeing to admit him after several years of trying. “Boswell, although desperate to be elected after he returned to England in 1766, didn’t get in until 1773. Club members liked him well enough, but thought of him as a lightweight whose only merit was devotion to Johnson” . After several chapters on Boswell, it is difficult not to concur.
One reason for this elongated treatment is that Boswell makes fascinating reading; another is that it is only through Boswell’s meticulous notes (often recorded at the Club) and subsequent biography that we have a fairly complete understanding of Samuel Johnson. Another possible explanation is that many of the characters in this book were flawed as individuals, but went on to leave enormous legacies in the form of their writings. Boswell’s legacy shows that the difference between fame and obscurity may be a single good book.
Leo Damrosch is a Harvard professor of literature, with an extensive academic history and publication record. His most recent books are Tocqueville’s Discovery of America and Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award in biography, and one of two finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in biography. He is also author of the biography Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius, a National Book Award Finalist for nonfiction and winner of the Winship/PEN New England Award for nonfiction (source: leodamrosch.com).
The Club is a thoroughly researched and engaging volume, appealing to readers with an interest in British literature and eighteenth century history. Damrosch’s tone deftly delivers reverence without sycophancy and honesty without hostility.
By Leo Damrosch
Yale University Press
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