The periodical essays of Dr. Johnson
The periodical essays make up over a third of the bulk of Johnson's writings, and yet in comparison with his later work they are very little known. The fact that they do not rank with his later writings in quality is not alone sufficient to account for the neglect with which they have been treated. The true reason for the comparative obscurity of these essays lies not so much in the essays themselves as in the fact that they labour under the handicap of a literary form which had already been so perfected that any falling away was sure to bring with it neglect. Johnson complains several times that the public expect him to follow in the footsteps of Addison and Steele and complain if his subject matter and technique show any variation from theirs, while he fails to see why Addison and Steele should be allowed to prescribe the nature of the periodical essay for all time. This is fair enough, but the retort found in another of his own essays -- to the effect that authors who deviate from the beaten track because they think they see a greener path must be willing to suffer neglect and even harsh criticism as the price of their originality.1 Certainly Johnson had as much cause to thank his predecessors for the excessive popularity of the essay as a literary format he had to resent their having fixed in the minds of the public the exact type of essay they desired. Only the impetus supplied by this popularity could have made it worth his while to write five volumes of essays, for valuable as they are in some respects, it is hard to conceive of them as being popular as periodical literature in any age. His interests would not permit a suitable selection or subject matter, and even had this not been the case his particular powers never included the lightness of touch which made the earlier works what they were. This becomes patent in the papers which he designed to add frivolity and gaiety to the collection. Judged by the Spectator, which is, and will no doubt continue to be, our standard of the periodical essay, these are inferior, but taken on their own merits, which after all is the only reasonable way to estimate literary work, they are quite the reverse. The reader who goes to them expecting to be bored is pleasantly surprised. They are not meant to be read straight ahead by the volume, but a judicious selection will draw forth an echo of the compliment which so pleased their author -- "I thought very well of you before; but I did not imagine you could have written any thing equal to this. "2 It would be remarkable if several hundred essays on subjects as varied as creation, by a man as great as Johnson, did not contain much that was worth our notice. In this essay an attempt is made to bring forward the more important theories and facts they contain by a classification and discussion of the subject matter. 1. Adv. #131. 2. Boswell. (The Life of Samuel Johnson).