Features May 2019
Studies in clubbability
A review of The Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped an Age, by Leo Damrosch.
Brits may not always be very sociable, but they have learned to be clubbable when they choose. They even embraced conviviality three hundred years ago. For sure, the eighteenth century was a prime time for social organizations of all kinds: if Paris had its high-minded salons, London had plenty of groups that ranged from the polite assemblies of scientists and bluestockings to bibulous fraternities looking for an excuse to make merry. The habit soon spread from England, Scotland, and Ireland to places like Annapolis, Maryland. This was a small town with scarcely enough inhabitants to raise a posse, let alone get together a regular quorum of like-minded hedonists. It had been renamed in honor of the future Queen Anne (how could the citizens have guessed that she would one day figure in an Oscar-winning movie as part of a lesbian love triangle?).
The main founding father of the Tuesday Club was Alexander Hamilton, not that one, of course, but a doctor born in Edinburgh. In 1745, he and his friends set about replacing the Ugly Club, the previous center of social life among the gentry of Annapolis, and like most of these associations an all-male affair. For a member to qualify, “it was sufficient to profess and believe that he was not handsome, till he was declared to be a monstrous ugly fellow by the Ladies in public company.”
Understandably, in the Tuesday Club there were ways of masking identity, so that the roll of officers included “Quirpum Comic, Master of Ceremonies”; “Tunbelly Bowzer”; “Laconic Comas, orator”; and “Loquacious Scribble, secretary,” that is, Hamilton himself. The facetious titles match those found in numerous similar societies elsewhere. So did a few of the rites and customs. In his very full account of their proceedings, unpublished until 1990, Hamilton tells us that “The conversation of the Club was of a mixed kind. Sometimes they would dip into politics, and examine with great candor [fairness] and moderation, the merits of the cause on both sides of the question.” But for the most part the members were unabashed royalists and proto-Tories who would not have foreseen the coming American Revolution. On sacred issues, “they seldom durst go any farther than significant nods, winks and shrugs.” You could say some of the same things about the most famous group of the era, except that it admitted a shocking array of Whigs and even the odd radical. This was known with true English insularity as “the Club,” when not identified as the Literary Club or named for its most prominent member, Samuel Johnson.
Yet this body was no more representative than the Tuesday of all that went on in the wide world of clubs. The full range of the phenomenon has been splendidly demonstrated in Peter Clark’s book British Clubs and Societies 1580–1800 (2000), subtitled “The Origins of an Associational World.” In the later part of this period, Clark shows, “voluntary associations of all sorts became an essential part of the social and cultural language of urban life.” His account gives both Johnson and Hamilton a look in, but they have to share space with the organizers of dotty-looking bunches such as the British Arthurites and the Ugly Face Club—Liverpool’s answer to Annapolis’s version—as well as groups with some resemblance to the flourishing Masonic lodges: the Gormogons and the Noble Order of Bucks. As for the Order of Ubiquarians—well no, I can’t guess either. Musical associations were especially well represented. It is widely known that Handel’s Messiah had its premiere thanks to the efforts of the Charitable Music Society in Dublin. But London also had many places to relish a sing-along with professionals, such as the Catch Club, where Thomas Arne might drop in. Another was the Anacreontic Society, with which members of Johnson’s circle were allegedly involved, and which Haydn once attended. It is likely here that listeners first heard John Stafford Smith’s glee “To Anacreon in Heaven,” a tune now more recognizable for its setting as “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Then there was the grand Royal Society, which started out as little more than a dining club. Later came the classy Society of Dilettanti, always tagged with Horace Walpole’s bitchy aside, “A club, for which the nominal qualification is having been in Italy, and the real one, being drunk.” (If you should wish to find out the truth, Jason M. Kelley’s monograph from 2009 sets the record straight.) The Dilettanti possibly looked down on the Society of Antiquaries, who in turn must have regarded Johnson’s lot as a bit boisterous and informal in manner. Members of the Society of Roman Knights named their avatars for Celtic princes. Wealthy young males in London whose tastes were less scholarly could channel what they had learned on the Grand Tour into losing ever larger sums in the gentlemen’s, that is, gambling, institutions such as White’s, which still exists in aristocratic bliss on London’s St James’s Street.
Like Johnson’s bête noire John Wilkes, others might join Hellfire sodalities, though most of their satanic doings appear to be pure invention. Along with Benjamin Franklin, eighteenth-century Londoners could take up membership in the numerous debating societies spread round the capital: among the best known of these was the Robin Hood Club, which like Johnson’s met in taverns not far from the Strand. Franklin, of course, exported the habit back to Philadelphia, with groups such as the Junto, where he could enjoy “company, chat, a laugh, a glass, and even a song,” along with “old men’s conversation.” But no songs were permitted at the Literary Club, unless an inebriated Boswell launched forth into one of his own creations, such as “William Pitt, the Grocer of London, an Excellent New Ballad, Written by James Boswell, esq. And sung by him at Guildhall on Lord-Mayor’s Day.” If he did, the episode has been edited out of his journals.
Boswell’s Life of Johnson is naturally a leading source for what went on at the Club. But even before the book appeared in 1791, seven years after the death of Johnson, a few drops of information about the Club had leaked out. We get stray hints from Fanny Burney, whose father, the musicologist Charles Burney, was elected to the Club in 1784, and oblique testimony about the atmosphere around the group in the writings of Hester Thrale, who snapped up unconsidered trifles regarding not only Johnson but also his friends, some of whom she cordially disliked.
In modern times, the discovery of Boswell’s private papers and the intensive study of figures such as Joshua Reynolds, David Garrick, Edmund Burke, Edward Gibbon, and Oliver Goldsmith have given us a fuller sense of what the Club meant in their lives. This is particularly important in the case of Reynolds, the organization’s guiding light in the formative years. He was a bachelor who lived close to the taverns and dining rooms where the members congregated. He practiced an art form, portrait painting, that was inherently social in its orientation, and he made his resplendent career by the assiduous cultivation of influential people, networking with fellow professionals and molding public taste. These were all things his rival Thomas Gainsborough could not, or would not, attempt. Hence, though the royal family preferred the style in which Gainsborough depicted them, he ended up outside the charmed circle—unlike Reynolds, who was knighted, was made president of the Royal Academy, and became a mainstay of the Club.
The new book by Leo Damrosch, The Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped an Age, ably uses these resources.1 It is so reader-friendly that the author might risk prosecution for indecent intimacy. Earlier in his career, the title pages of works by this author billed him as “Leopold Damrosch, Jr.,” a name perhaps suited to a professor at distinguished universities who produced a stream of well-regarded studies devoted to writers such as Johnson, Pope, and Fielding. These were rightly admired by scholars, but their method was a little too abstruse to attract a wider audience. More recently he has been rebranded as “Leo Damrosch” in books on Rousseau, Tocqueville, and Swift, which still exhibit mastery of their subjects but which adopt a more conversational style and a simpler structure. These qualities are seen very clearly in his Jonathan Swift (2013), the most satisfactory reading of Swift for our time in a crowded field. The Club shows the same skill in presenting a digested mass of scholarship in clear prose and an argument uncluttered by fidgety theoretical sidenotes. It is, at once, a narrative and an analysis of greatness.
So, many readers will be drawn to this brilliant piece of work. But a buyer needs to beware of one thing: it is the subtitle which accurately reflects its content. What Damrosch gives us is an orderly, largely chronological survey of the dealings between key members of Johnson’s circle, who happened to be members of the Club. He describes their achievements in various fields, mostly the product of their literary efforts—even the painter Reynolds and the actor Garrick made notable contributions to the discourse surrounding their arts. Damrosch brings his exceptional knowledge of the period to bear on their careers, drawing with freedom and good judgment on the plethora of writing these luminaries have stimulated. His coverage extends from the domestic and local to much wider issues, including imperial themes in Burke, the theological concerns called up by Gibbon’s study of ancient history, and the vision of a commercial society in Adam Smith. His range of allusion is broad, and he does not disdain to quote from T. B. Macaulay, whose work is generally dismissed as shallow and dated by students of Johnson and Boswell.
These last two are naturally the main heroes of the narrative. Damrosch skillfully tells the story of their early lives, prior to the formation of the Club in 1764, in rapid-fire chapters that comprise the first third of the volume. Although the relations of these men have been endlessly explored, this study provides perhaps the sanest appraisal we have of the similarities and dissimilarities that went into their extraordinary chemical bond. To cite just one example, take this portrayal painted with a deliberately broad brush:
Boswell was a romantic who fantasized about feudal affection between lords and their dependents, Johnson was a hardheaded pragmatist. Johnson insisted on reason and self-control, Boswell reveled in emotional “sensibility” and seized gratifications whenever he could. Johnson aspired to what he called “the grandeur of generality” and Boswell to specificity and piquant details.
The terms of this contrast are not the most sophisticated that have ever been offered, and Johnsonians might query some phrases, but it stands as fundamentally sound.
What, though, of Damrosch’s title? It is, to be candid, something of a misnomer. Except in a perfunctory way, he does not discuss the formation of the Club, its spoken and unspoken rules, its manner of recruitment and election, or the ebb and flow of its active membership. If you want to find out about such things, you need to search out a detailed history up to 1905 compiled by a polymath rejoicing in the name of Sir Mountstuart Elphinstone Grant Duff, who was well qualified as a member of every learned society anybody has ever heard of. (There is also a brief but deft 2014 continuation of these annals by Sir David Cannadine, Peter Hennessy, and Charles Saumarez Smith.) We get a welcome recall in the new book of many juicy stories about people in the Johnson circle, but only a minority of these scenes took place at Club meetings. Damrosch provides an excellent account of the momentous trip to the Highlands and Islands of Scotland that Johnson and Boswell took in 1773. He brings out the anthropological and cultural interest of the book-of-the-trip that each man subsequently wrote, but the Club is so far from his thoughts that he chooses not to mention a highly relevant passage in which the pair envisage setting up a rival college at St. Andrews, with the key faculty recruited from their clubmates (Boswell awarded himself “civil and Scotch law”).
Damrosch’s narrative essentially ends after the first twenty years of the Club’s existence, abruptly cut off by the death of Johnson. This means we don’t get the account by Boswell and others of what went on at meetings in the following decade, which saw huge achievements by members. This was the time when Burke wrote his Reflections on the Revolution in France; Gibbon brought his Decline and Fall to a triumphant conclusion; Charles Burney followed suit with his history of music; Reynolds published his final Discourses to the Royal Academy, including a noble tribute to his rival Gainsborough; Richard Brinsley Sheridan entered parliament and led the ill-judged arraignment of the former Governor-General of India, Warren Hastings (who, but for politics, likely would have been elected to the group); Edmond Malone produced the best Shakespeare edition up to that point; and Sir William Jones opened up Indian culture to the West, proposing a connection between Sanskrit and Greek. So one might go on. Arguably these were the true golden years for the Club. Though Johnson was dead, he lived on in the posthumous biographies of John Hawkins, Hester Thrale (by then Piozzi), and, of course, Boswell, which all emerged in this halcyon period.
The key to the approach Damrosch takes to the Club is his selective attitude toward the membership. He plays down the role of Goldsmith, Sheridan, Thomas Percy, Malone, and others. Also skimmed over are career politicians such as Charles James Fox, sometimes an awkward dinner companion for Burke, as well as the attorney Hawkins and a few bureaucrats. This leaves him room to smuggle in a penetrating study of David Hume, who would never have been a candidate for admission in view of his easy skepticism on religious matters, which so confounded Boswell. Moreover, there is little recognition that, from the start, physicians, scientists, and travelers were staples of the society, with figures like Sir Joseph Banks, a would-be polar explorer and future president of the Royal Society, elected on his return from the first Pacific voyage with Captain James Cook. Banks had taken along two artists, his own plant hunter (who surveyed what became Botany Bay), and two dogs. He’d wanted to go on the second voyage, but Cook refused to house on board his team of fifteen, which included two horn players, considered by the mariner surplus to requirements. That decision might have prompted some talk while the port was passed round at the Turk’s Head Tavern.
For Damrosch, the title of the Literary Club suggests a caucus of writers. But it really meant individuals who were well versed in the works of ancient authors, as the fruit of a classical education, even if this qualification was sometimes honored in the breach. Damrosch’s slant becomes clearer than ever on the final page of the book, the only discussion of the “afterlife of the Club.” The author lists a number of later members, all writers apart from William Ewart Gladstone, Neville Chamberlain, and Harold Macmillan. This is the concluding paragraph:
Not many of the hundreds of other members’ names would ring a bell with readers today. It’s notable that increasingly they were chosen from politics and the peerage, not from literature and the arts, and that by the time Kipling, Beerbohm and Eliot got in they were nearing the end of their careers. And how many names don’t appear at all, who might well have been chosen if Johnson and Burke were still electing the members! No Dickens and Thackeray, no Trollope and Hardy, no Lawrence and Orwell and Auden and Larkin. There were several Conservative prime ministers, but not the greatest of them, Winston Churchill. And of course no George Eliot or Virginia Woolf. It never ceased to be a club for men.
The idea of the Great Cham casting his ballot for Woolf is a mind-splitting one. (Her eminent father, Leslie Stephen, an expert on Johnson, had not been able to get in, perhaps because of his agnosticism.) Actually, if the Club were to have relaxed its rule about women (it still hasn’t), it would more likely have gone for Rebecca West, Freya Stark, or the Nobel Prize–winning chemist Dorothy Hodgkin. What is most remarkable about these comments, though, is the cavalier dismissal of non-members such as Humphry Davy, William Wollaston, William Whewell, Richard Owen, George Grote, J. A. Froude, Lord John Russell, Lord Salisbury, Alfred Comyn Lyall, William Stubbs, Lord Acton, W. E. H. Lecky, Lord Kelvin, Thomas Henry Huxley, John Morley, A. J. Balfour, Herbert Asquith, James Bryce, Lord Rosebery, G. M. Trevelyan, Sir John Cockcroft, John Betjeman, Lord Adrian, and a large gallery of other eminent scientists, historians, thinkers, and statesmen (not to mention artists, architects, and composers). You have to have a pretty blinkered view of achievement to believe that none of these men was more distinguished than Max Beerbohm. They might have been better dinner companions, too.
It is for writers, not reviewers, to decide what kind of book they want to write, and, given his aims, Damrosch has produced an attractive and consistently readable study of the Johnson circle. Only a scholar who has been round the block a few times could have put together such a well-documented account of this milieu. As usual, Yale University Press provides some nice illustrations, with well-chosen color plates, though as they are reproduced two on a page, some are too small to take in easily—you’d need bionic eyes to pick out certain details that are mentioned in the text. The Club deserves a warm welcome, even if a few of us would like to have seen Damrosch, with all his great skills, go a little further into the “associational world” that Johnson and his friends inhabited.
1 The Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped an Age, by Leo Damrosch; Yale University Press, 488 pages, $30.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 9, on page 16
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