Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review, which has been on the web since 1995, is now published from Freeport, Maine. See main page for full contents

September 20, 2009


We've missed this important date by a couple of days, but Pablo Davis hit it right on with this piece about the writer who inspired the first version of the Progressive Review forty-five years ago - then called The Idler.

Pablo J. Davis, Discrepo
- Three hundred years ago was born to a struggling, lower-middle class household-the father a bookseller-in Lichfield, England, an infant son who would become a large, clumsy boy, a lover of books, and then a man, one of the giants of the literature and cultural life of the English-speaking world.

His name was Samuel, "Dr. Johnson" as he became known in his later life and ever since. For over two centuries, the world has thought it knew him because a young Scotsman who idolized him, James Boswell, brought him alive in quite likely the most famous biography ever written in English. Boswell's Johnson was a cantankerous old Tory who growled out his prejudices with an acid wit.

In large part due to Boswell, the world has tended to see Johnson as a conservative, as a man of the political Right, and many of that persuasion have claimed him as a kind of secular patron saint.

Ah, but there was much more to the man than that. Reverential of traditions and hierarchies, both religious and political-in his words, "I am a friend to subordination"-he believed respect was due to legitimate monarchs, yet he also scorned aristocracy when it was weak of character and mean-spirited. . .

Casting himself as a Tory in a Whig-dominated age, he was in truth not a man of hardened doctrine. But throughout his life, Johnson hated and wrote passionately against militarism and war, against empires, against racism and slavery. He famously wondered, during the Revolutionary crisis in Britain's American colonies, "Why is it that the loudest yelps for liberty come from the drivers of Negroes?"-that is, slaveowners and traders.

Once an acquaintance scolded him for giving alms to a beggar who surely "would lay it out on gin and tobacco". Johnson's memorable, moving retort: "And why should they be denied such sweeteners of their existence? It is surely very savage to refuse them every possible avenue to pleasure" in the midst of the bitterness of their lives.

Above all, Johnson wrote. Constantly guilt-ridden at (he believed) his sloth and procrastination, he produced an astonishing body of work, including The Lives of the Poets, the path-breaking Dictionary of the English Language, a complete annotated edition of Shakespeare, Rasselas, a marvelous parable of the fundamental unity and equality of all mankind, several astonishing runs of essays of cultural observation and moral uplift (including the Idler series), and much, much more.

The complex humanity, intellect, and morality of the man shine through in this passage: "No man has a right to any good without partaking of the evil by which that good is necessarily produced; no man has a right to security by another's danger, nor to plenty by another's labor, but as he gives something of his own which he who meets the danger or undergoes the labor considers as equivalent. No man has a right to the security of government without bearing his share of its inconveniences."


- Johnson says people who aim to do great things for humanity often end up feeling that they have not done as much as they should. This should not discourage us, however; the important thing is to do whatever we can.

"If I had ever found any of the self-contemners much irritated or pained by the consciousness of their meanness, I should have given them consolation by observing, that a little more than nothing is as much as can be expected from a being, who, with respect to the multitudes about him, is himself little more than nothing. Every man is obliged by the Supreme Master of the universe to improve all the opportunities of good which are afforded him, and to keep in continual activity such abilities as are bestowed upon him. But he has no reason to repine, though his abilities are small and his opportunities few. He that has improved the virtue, or advanced the happiness of one fellow-creature, he that has ascertained a single moral proposition, or added one useful experiment to natural knowledge, may be contented with his own performance, and, with respect to mortals like himself, may demand, like Augustus, to be dismissed at his departure with applause."

Stating that "money and time are the heaviest burdens of life, and that the unhappiest of all mortals are those who have more of either than they know how to use", Johnson praises those who spend their lives inventing new amusement for the rich and idle. Chief among these are the newswriters, who have multiplied greatly in recent years. Johnson identifies the necessary qualities of a journalist as "contempt of shame and indifference to truth", and says that wartime offers the perfect opportunity to exercise these.

"Among the calamities of war may be justly numbered the diminution of the love of truth, by the falsehoods which interest dictates, and credulity encourages. A peace will equally leave the warrior and relater of wars destitute of employment; and I know not whether more is to be dreaded from streets filled with soldiers accustomed to plunder, or from garrets filled with scribblers accustomed to lie."

Johnson bemoans the repetitiveness of news coverage. He suggests that, instead of announcing an event all at once and then rehashing it endlessly, newspaper writers should reveal the story gradually to keep readers entertained.

"Thus journals are daily multiplied without increase of knowledge. The tale of the morning paper is told again in the evening, and the narratives of the evening are bought again in the morning. These repetitions, indeed, waste time, but they do not shorten it. The most eager peruser of news is tired before he has completed his labor; and many a man, who enters the coffee-house in his nightgown and slippers, is called away to his shop, or his dinner, before he has well considered the state of Europe."

Johnson explains how he chose his pen name. "Every man is", he says, "or hopes to be, an Idler." He promises his readers "obloquy and satire": "The Idler is naturally censorious; those who attempt nothing themselves, think every thing easily performed, and consider the unsuccessful always as criminal." However, he says that this incurs no obligation and that disappointed readers will have only themselves to blame.

"Every mode of life has its conveniencies. The Idler, who habituates himself to be satisfied with what he can most easily obtain, not only escapes labous which are often fruitless, but sometimes succeeds better than those who despise all that is within their reach, and think every thing more valuable as it is harder to be acquired."


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