Tuesday, October 16, 2007
Samuel Johnson as Bible Thumper
The bookseller Thomas Osborne bought the library of Edward Harley, Earl of Oxford, and hired Samuel Johnson to catalogue it. A dispute between Osborne and Johnson arose in the course of the work. Johnson's early biographers give slightly different accounts of the quarrel.
John Hawkins, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.:
I mention the above particulars of this worthless fellow as an introduction to a fact respecting his behaviour to Johnson, which I have often heard related, and which himself confessed to be true. Johnson, while employed in selecting pieces for the Harleian Miscellany, was necessitated, not only to peruse the title-page of each article, but frequently to examine its contents, in order to form a judgment of its worth and importance, in the doing whereof, it must be supposed, curiosity might sometimes detain him too long, and whenever it did, Osborne was offended. Seeing Johnson one day deeply engaged in perusing a book, and the work being for the instant at a stand, he reproached him with inattention and delay, in such coarse language as few men would use, and still fewer could brook: the other in his justification asserted somewhat, which Osborne answered by giving him the lie; Johnson's anger at so foul a charge, was not so great as to make him forget that he had weapons at hand: he seized a folio that lay near him, and with it felled his adversary to the ground, with some exclamation, which, as it is differently related, I will not venture to repeat.Hesther Lynch Piozzi, Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson:
Of the truth of stories which ran currently about the town concerning Dr. Johnson it was impossible to be certain, unless one asked him himself, and what he told, or suffered to be told, before his face without contradicting, has every public mark, I think, of real and genuine authenticity. I made, one day, very minute inquiries about the tale of his knocking down the famous Tom Osborne with his own "Dictionary" in the man's own house. "And how was that affair? In earnest? Do tell me, Mr. Johnson?" "There is nothing to tell, dearest lady, but that he was insolent, and I beat him, and that he was a blockhead, and told of it, which I should never have done. So the blows have been multiplying and the wonder thickening for all these years, as Thomas was never a favourite with the public. I have beat many a fellow, but the rest had the wit to hold their tongues."James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson LL.D.:
In 1742 he wrote ... 'Proposals for Printing Bibliotheca Harleiana, or a Catalogue of the Library of the Earl of Oxford.' He was employed in this business by Mr. Thomas Osborne the bookseller, who purchased the library for 13,000 £, a sum which Mr. Oldys says, in one of his manuscripts, was not more than the binding of the books had cost; yet, as Dr. Johnson assured me, the slowness of the sale was such, that there was not much gained by it. It has been confidently related, with many embellishments, that Johnson one day knocked Osborne down in his shop, with a folio, and put his foot upon his neck. The simple truth I had from Johnson himself. 'Sir, he was impertinent to me, and I beat him. But it was not in his shop: it was in my own chamber.'The statement of the former Mrs. Thrale (Hesther Lynch Piozzi) that the book used as a weapon was Johnson's own dictionary can probably be dismissed. Hawkins and Boswell connect the incident with the catalogue of the Harleian library. Work on this started in 1742, parts of the catalogue appeared in 1743-1744, and selected pamphlets from the library were reprinted between 1744 and 1746. Johnson's Dictionary was not published until 1755.
John Nichols, Literary Anecdotes, vol. VIII (1814), p. 446, reports:
The identical book with which Johnson knocked down Osborne (Biblia Graeca Septuaginta, folio, 1594, Frankfort; the note written by the Rev. ----- Mills) I saw in February 1812 at Cambridge, in the possession of J. Thorpe, Bookseller; whose Catalogue, since published, contains particulars authenticating this assertion.W. Jackson Bate, Samuel Johnson (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977), p. 225, accepts the identification of the folio with a Greek Bible.