In the famous dictionary he published in 1755, Samuel Johnson defined a “club” as “an assembly of good fellows, meeting under certain conditions.” Nine years later, in 1764, the lexicographer became a founder of the Club, with a capital C. Its good fellows met under these conditions: They gathered one evening each week near the Strand in London, where they took a private room at the Turk’s Head Tavern, ordered food and wine, and conversed about topics great and small. Members “had to be good company — ready to talk, laugh, drink, eat, and argue until late into the night,” writes Leo Damrosch in The Club, an ambitious, multi-part biography of their lives and times.
The Club was no ordinary collection of drinking buddies. Rather, it represented an astonishing assembly of talent and accomplishment. Members included Johnson as well as James Boswell, Edmund Burke, Edward Gibbon, and Adam Smith. These five, according to Damrosch, were “arguably the greatest British critic, biographer, political philosopher, historian, and economist of all time.” The Club’s second-tier members also were extraordinary: David Garrick, the greatest actor of the age; Joshua Reynolds, a top painter; and Oliver Goldsmith and Richard Brinsley Sheridan, two of the era’s most successful playwrights. Men of this caliber of intellectual and cultural firepower have congregated only rarely, in places such as classical Athens, Renaissance Florence, and, coincidentally, in Philadelphia at roughly the same time as Johnson’s group.
Who wouldn’t want to eavesdrop on the Club’s conversations? Imagine Johnson and Garrick debating the art of Shakespeare. Or Boswell and Reynolds discussing the differences between written and visual portraiture. Or Burke and Smith — a pair of thinkers whose ideas echo loudly in today’s conservative movement — chatting about just about anything. That’s the implicit promise of Damrosch’s book. “The Club is the virtual hero of this story,” writes the author, a retired professor of literature at Harvard University. Yet this organizing principle turns out to be a curious weakness. Although the members of the Club left behind a massive record of books, essays, and speeches, almost nothing remains of what they said when they met in person. There are no transcripts. Only occasionally did one of them jot down the remarks of another. We have a star-studded cast, but there’s no script.
Damrosch solves this problem by shifting his attention away from the specific activities of the Club and onto the amply documented friendship of Johnson and Boswell. They were an impressive duo, and The Club is essentially about them, with several tangents into the lives of their compatriots. This is well-trod ground, starting with Boswell’s own Life of Johnson and running through a long list of biographies that focus on one, the other, or the two together. Do we really need a new account of this old story? Perhaps. “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life,” Johnson once said. It’s also hard to tire of Johnson, a dazzling wit who shaped the way we think about language and literature. Boswell, too, is a good subject. He was a pioneer in the art of biography and a dutiful diarist, whose revealing journals comprise more than a dozen volumes.
The world of Johnson is so rich that scholars have given it a name: Johnsoniana. There’s even a subfield: Boswelliana. Yet the map of their lives contains a few frustrating areas of terra incognita. Writers have had little to say about the friendship between Johnson and Burke, for example. Both were founding members of the Club, belonging to it for about a decade before Boswell, Gibbon, and Smith joined. They enjoyed a long connection, shared many interests, and were mutually admiring. Johnson was a hard man to impress, but he had the highest regard for Burke: “You could not stand five minutes with that man beneath a shed while it rained, but you must be convinced you had been standing with the greatest man you had ever seen.” The only thing that he may not have liked about his fellow Clubber was Burke’s fondness for groan-inducing puns. One time, for example, Burke sat near a ham. “I am Ham-Burke,” he said, punning on the name of Hamburg, the German city. In recounting the incident, Damrosch says the most charitable thing possible: “You had to be there.”
This is the fundamental obstacle for any biographer who seeks to describe the friendship of Johnson and Burke: You had to have been there. They might have engaged in some of the greatest conversations in history, but we just don’t know, because conversations are ephemeral. Unless someone records them, they vanish like wisps of smoke. To compensate for their disappearance, Damrosch offers a brief biography of Burke, but it fails to show why Burke deserved Johnson’s profound admiration. Part of the problem may be Damrosch’s garden-variety liberalism. Today’s conservatives honor Burke as one of their intellectual heroes, largely for his authorship of Reflections on the Revolution in France, which warned against the chaos of mobs and the abandonment of tradition. Damrosch tries to push back, scolding American conservatives for having “idealized Burke as their foundational thinker” when the radical Thomas Paine mattered more to the Founding Fathers. Damrosch goes to great pains to make this point — or great Paines, to use a Burkean pun — but he seems unfamiliar with the writings of Peter Stanlis, Russell Kirk, and Yuval Levin. They’re nowhere in the footnotes, even though their work is indispensable to an understanding of Burke’s brand of conservatism and what American conservatives see in it.
Damrosch’s coverage of Smith is also a letdown, though in this case his characters hobble him. The introverted author of The Wealth of Nations was a “strangely recessive” member of the Club. When he was elected to it in 1775, Boswell, his former student in Edinburgh, grumbled that the Club had “lost its selective merit.” Johnson was sharper: Smith, he said, was “as dull a dog as he had ever met with.” The animosities at the Club extended to others as well: “Johnson and Boswell both loathed Gibbon,” writes Damrosch. In this instance, at least, their ire is rooted in disdain for what they perceived as anti-Christian views in Gibbon’s magnum opus, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. So here’s a substantial disagreement, and the prospect of rhetorical fireworks, but the fact remains that we just don’t know much about what Johnson, Boswell, and Gibbon said to one other at the Turk’s Head Tavern.
With so little to report about what really happened at meetings of the Club, Damrosch turns not only to potted biographies of great men but also to what he calls Johnson’s “shadow club” or “second club.” This was the social circle that surrounded Hester Thrale, who became something of a patron to Johnson. She was also a devoted diarist, and if Boswell never had lived, her writings would serve as the favorite source of Johnson’s biographers. Even with Boswell’s biography, Thrale offers a unique contribution. Boswell, writes Damrosch, “felt a jealous rivalry with Hester for Johnson’s affection.” He essentially ignores her in The Life of Johnson, and she has much to say that Boswell doesn’t.
Thrale has provided anecdotes and insights into everything from Johnson’s method of composition to his mental health. He clearly suffered from what people in the 18th century called “melancholy.” Our word for it is “depression,” and Johnson’s case seems to have been severe. It may also be linked to his brilliance, making him a quintessential case of a tortured genius.
The torture was literal, according to Katharine C. Balderston, the editor of Thrale’s diary (known as — wait for it — Thraliana). In 1949, Balderston described Johnson as a victim of “erotic maladjustment.” She continued: “His compulsive fantasy assumed a masochistic form, in which the impulse to self-abasement and pain predominated.” In other words, Mrs. Thrale padlocked Johnson and beat him with rods in acts of sexual perversion. Provocative claims require compelling proof, and in this case the evidence is thin. Most Johnson scholars have rejected it, including W. Jackson Bate, Peter Martin, and John Wain. Damrosch, however, accepts Balderston’s theory without hesitation. That’s fine, but beyond labeling her original article “controversial,” he doesn’t indicate to readers that this wild speculation is in fact a minority opinion.
Elsewhere, Damrosch makes better observations and wiser judgments. He marvels at the “remarkable” fluke that both Johnson and Garrick hailed from Lichfield, a small city near Birmingham, and they were buried beside each other in the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey. Damrosch also endorses Johnson’s own belief that if he hadn’t quit Oxford for lack of funds, he might have disappeared into the mire of academia, never to be heard from again. Johnson instead moved to Grub Street, the traditional home of Londoners who scribbled for a living. Damrosch goes on to suggest that Johnson should have tried a medium that was just starting to catch on: “In hindsight it’s clear that the best path to success would have been as a novelist.” Unfortunately for fans of the novel, Johnson disliked the form.
He possibly inspired a certain novel’s famous first line. In one of his journalistic essays, Johnson wrote in the voice of an imaginary correspondent: “I was known to possess a fortune, and to want a wife.” Compare that with the opening sentence of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. By the time Austen published it in 1813, Johnson was long gone: He died in 1784. James Boswell followed in 1795.
By the late 1770s, Johnson had disengaged from the Club because, writes Damrosch, he “felt strongly that the whole point of the group had been forgotten.” The conversations that took place under its auspices will remain unknown, but we do have the enduring works of its members. Maybe that’s good enough. As Johnson wrote a few years before the advent of the Club: “The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it.” If that’s not a truth universally acknowledged, it ought to be.
This article appears as “Assembly For the Ages” in the May 6, 2019, print edition of National Review.