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Samuel Johnson and the Art of Sinking 1709-1791 by Freya (Lecturer in English, University of Warwick) Johnston


Samuel Johnson and the Art of Sinking 1709-1791 by Freya (Lecturer in English, University of Warwick) Johnston

The traditional view of Samuel Johnson as hostile to particulars, trifles, and aesthetic mediocrity only half-explains his authorial character. Samuel Johnson and the Art of Sinking 1709-1791 argues that, in a period dominated by social and literary hierarchies, Johnson's works reveal a defining interest in 'little', 'mean', or 'low' topics and people. Freya Johnston moves away from a critical emphasis on what literature of this period excludes, to consider its modes of including recalcitrant material. Of necessity finite, any piece of writing is informed by the subject matter it omits or to which it indirectly alludes. How can we identify the peripheral topics or characters purportedly 'excluded' from a text, unless it provides compelling inferences that oblige us to supply the omission? In which case, something subtler is at work than barefaced proscription. Rehearsing the comparative merits of great and little things, Johnson and his contemporaries tested the opposing claims of pagan and Christian authority. Ancient criticism, and its eighteenth-century adherents, held that each subject required an appropriate style: little matters call for the low, lofty ones for the high. Yet Gospel writers stressed Christ's incarnation as a praiseworthy and imitable descent to the humanly little - one that is compatible with the most sublime style. Through a series of close readings, this book examines how Johnson conceived of his relationships to and with the margins of writing and of society. It proposes that his literary and critical practice is neither inclusive nor exclusive in its attitudes towards peripheral things.


This is a genuinely enjoyable and informative book, and it leads one to hope for a future work by Johnston in which she can range beyond the usual academic boundaries. * Choice * Writing in a lucid style and with fine literary sensibility, Johnston traces the phenomenon of sinking in the works of Samuel Johnson, offering enlightening chapters on patronage, litotes, the Lives of the Poets, and Johnson's readings of Pope and Milton. * Choice * Freya Johnston has effectively reopened and reframed the old questions * TLS * The overwhelming strength of the book is its scrupulous attention to philological facts of all persuasions....[Johnston's] portrait of the great man reveals at nearly every turn how undecided Johnson could be, and how often that indecision came to the fore in his writings, both great and small, across his long career. Thus, Samuel Johnson and the Art of Sinking reminds us that the Great Cham was an ordinary man - which is no small accomplishment. * Christopher Vilmar, Eighteenth-Century Book Reviews * reframes for a new generation of Johnsonians and eighteenth-century scholars some important rhetorical, ethical, and aesthetic concerns. * David F. Venturo, The College of New Jersey * ...detailed and scholarly study...This is a learned book and a rewarding one. It brings out a feature of Johnsons attitudes, and thereby of his writing, that, while at first appearing as itself little, moves rapidly to a central position in his thinking and his literary, as well as religious, practice. * Allan Ingram, Modern Language Review * learned and excellent and critically thoughtful, thought-provoking, book...intelligent, independent, richly scholarly, wide-ranging, surprising and delightfully fresh and original in its documentation, as well as engagingly written. * Philip Smallwood, The New Rambler * ...subtle, intricately illuminating ... This book about small things is large in interest and consequence. It brings a fresh eye and keen critical intelligence to the important issues it engages, and leaves us with a more deeply textured sense of Johnson's works and values. * Stephen Fix, Essays in Criticism *

About the Author

Freya Johnson is a Fellow and Lecturer in English at Christ's College, Cambridge. She was previously Enid Welsford Research Fellow in English at Newnham College, Cambridge.

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Book Info

Publication date

17th February 2005


Freya (Lecturer in English, University of Warwick) Johnston

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Oxford University Press


284 pages


Literary studies: c 1500 to c 1800



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