Book Review

Hart, Kevin. Samuel Johnson and the Culture of Property. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Reviewed by William Warner | July 12, 2000

Kevin Hart’s Samuel Johnson and the Culture of Property has many of the qualities – of beautiful style and understated subtlety – more often found in a literary essay than a scholarly monograph. In seeking to understand Samuel Johnson’s relationship to property, Professor Hart takes into account Locke’s concepts of property and the debates leading up to the House of Lords debates upon authorial property and limited copyright that culminate with Donaldson v Becket in 1774. However, this book does not aspire to the broad social and cultural issues of many books in literary studies these days. Instead, Hart’s book is an insightful intervention within the debates of one of the most venerable institutions of English, the Johnson and Boswell club (or clubs). At issue is an assessment of that powerful act of appropriation and expropriation effected by Boswell, when he made a systematic study of the life and conversation of Samuel Johnson, and then transformed both into a monumental biography, the Life. Does this monument-building betray and obscure the work (and Works) of the esteemed father of English literary studies, as Johnsonians like Donald Greene have claimed, or is Boswell’s Life an indispensable information source by which we can know Johnson as a man with a profound inner life, the first melancholy modern? Hart’s book is a valuable contribution to historicizing and complicating a question like that, a way to study and value Johnson’s Works as well as Boswell’s Life as well as the whole monumental legend and property that “Johnson” and the “Age of Johnson” have become. Hart reminds us, “[a] monument tells us that an individual has been made into more than himself, made sublime or into a spectacle” (20). I especially value Professor Hart’s critique of the Life for representing Johnson as one who always has the brisk and witty “answers,” thereby effacing the much more questioning human, readable in the many texts Johnson wrote, for example, “The Vanity of Human Wishes” and Rasselas. However, while Hart’s qualification of Boswell’s use of Johnson is both useful and cogent, one can’t help feel that he is still thinking within the cozy and urbane confines of the Johnson Club. To put my complaint in the jargon of the recent stock frenzy: Hart’s account of the Johnson legend, monument and property reads more like the “buy recommendation” from a firm floating a new offering of stock, than the balanced assessment of a skeptical analyst. It would be most valuable to have a reading of this vast literary “property” that is more critically detached, or less vested in the shares of the literary industries of “Johnson” and “Boswell.”

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