Review | The Club : by Leo Damrosch

“Unlike some later clubs, it had no premises of its own, but met in an ordinary London pub. The members included Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, Edmund Burke, Edward Gibbon and Adam Smith – arguably the greatest British critic, biographer, political philosopher, historian and economist of all time.”

Leo Damrosch, The Club : Johnson,Boswell and the Friends Who Shaped an Age

When I first read a review of this book, I knew I wanted to read it, but I also thought it would be a serious read and would take awhile to complete. To my surprise, I had so much interest due to the engaging writing that learning about these diverse personalities was captivating.

In The Club, as the actors appear one by one, surrounding Johnson and Boswell on Damrosch’s stage, we are transported back to a world of conversations, arguments, ideas and writings.

Jenny Uglow, New York review of Books

In 1764, Joshua Reynolds proposed The Club to Johnson, with the initial interest of nine members. New members could be elected only by unanimous vote. Perhaps even more important than their contribution to society and culture, was another requirement for Club membership : you had to be good company – ready to talk, laugh, drink, eat and argue until late at night at the weekly meetings at Turk’s Head Tavern.

The Club at the pub –

The friendship between Johnson and Boswell was something like a father/son relationship. When they met Johnson was in his fifties and Boswell in his early twenties. This initial meeting was in Thomas Davies’ bookshop. Boswell admired Johnson for accomplishing so much. Fortunately, Boswell documented in journal entries and diligent note taking his experiences with and observations of Johnson. Later, as Johnson’s biographer, Boswell used his notes to write the “Life of Johnson”. Johnson at times lost patience with Boswell:

“Sir, you have but two topics, yourself and me. I am sick of both.”

Johnson concerning Boswell
Johnson and Boswell – the

Johnson and Boswell had different opinions on the role of women. Some of Johnson’s most valued early colleagues in journalism were women and he maintained strong friendships with women throughout his life. Sir John Hawkins commented, “of the female mind, he (Johnson) conceived a higher opinion than many men …” In addition, Francis Reynolds said that Johnson “set a higher value upon female friendship than, perhaps, most men.” Boswell, on the other hand, was insistent on male authority and superiority. Membership in The Club was one hundred percent male, however, a shadow club existed with Hester Thrale as hostess. Hester and Henry Thrale were close friends of Johnson and loved to entertain. Many members of The Club were their frequent guests. Hester remained Johnson’s life long friend.

Not only does Damrosch capture the connections between and personalities of many men and women who helped shape the progress of culture in the eighteenth century, but he also provides us with visual representation of the period. Illustrations throughout the book and a beautiful center section of thirty one color prints provide an enhanced vision of life in the eighteenth century. For a view of mid to late eighteenth century London, this book is wonderful. Damrosch quotes Johnson:

“Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.”

Dr. Samuel Johnson

In 1755 Johnson completed the “Dictionary of the English Language”, considered by some to be his greatest work. It became common to refer to him as the “Great Lexicographer”. Damrosch, however, in this collective biography, highlights how Johnson played and influential role in the lives of a diverse group of men and as a result helped shape history. Quite an accomplishment.

Johnson never forgot what literature is for . . .

“Works of imagination excel by their allurement and delight; by their power of attracting and detaining attention. That book is good in vain which the reader throws away. He only is the master who keeps the mind in pleasing captivity; whose pages are perused with eagerness, and in hope of new pleasure are perused again; and whose conclusion is perceived with an eye of sorrow, such as the traveler casts upon departing day.”

Samuel Johnson

Damrosch is a “master” who keeps the mind in pleasing activity. My next biographical read will be “Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World” by Leo Damrosch.

Hard to believe, but true, The Club remains in existence right down to present day, under the name of the Literary Society. The Literary Society is a dining club founded by William Wordsworth and others is 1807. Its members are generally either prominent figures in English literature or eminent people in other fields with a strong interest in literature. It meets monthly at the Garrick Club. Women members were first elected in 2000.

Leo Damrosch is the Ernest Bernbaum Professor of Literature Emeritus at Harvard University.

Other early members of The Club were equally famous at the time : the painter, Joshua Reynolds; the playwrights, Richard Sheridan and Oliver Goldsmith; and David Garrick, the greatest actor of the century.

Published by Audrey Newhall

I am an avid reader and contributor to Penna Book Reviews

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