Reviewed: Francis Prose’s Reading Like a Writer

Reviewed: Francis Prose’s Reading Like a Writer

Reviewed: Prose, Francine. Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them. HarperCollinsPublishers, 2006.

To illustrate the variety in English authors, Francine Prose {1} includes the opening paragraph of Doctor Johnson’s The Life of Savage, {2} calling it lucid, economical and pleasing. So it is, though better terms might be dignified, oratorical and confining. The paragraph is built as Saintsbury {2} noted: with parallelism, balance, antithesis and stepwise construction:

It has been observed in all ages that the advantages of nature or of fortune have contributed very little to the promotion of happiness;

and that those whom the splendour of their rank or the extent of their capacity have placed upon the summits of human life, have not often given any just occasion to envy in those who look up to them from a lower station:

    whether it be that apparent superiority incites great designs, and great designs are naturally liable to fatal miscarriages;

    or that the general lot of mankind is misery, and the misfortunes of those whose eminence drew upon them an universal attention have been more carefully recorded,

        because they were more generally observed,

            and have in reality been only more conspicuous than those of others,

            not more frequent,

            or more severe.

Scholarship has passed on {4}, and the notorious Richard Savage—an indicted murderer, a roisterer through the salons and bawdy houses of eighteenth-century London {5}, but also the man who befriended and dazzled Johnson when the young provincial arrived from Lichfield — has become has become the Romantic rebel. {6}

‘The quality that this sentence shares in common with all good sentences’, writes Francine Prose, ‘is first and most obviously clarity. . . the average reader, or at least the reader who has the patience to read and consider every word, will have no trouble understanding what Doctor Johnson is saying.’

I am not so sure. Indeed, the careful reader may balk at the opening proposition, and wonder why a more straightforward Johnson piece hasn’t been chosen. No occasion to envy? Johnson felt the lack of money and position as keenly as anyone, and his whole life was a struggle against the difficulties of birth and temperament. Why start a biography — and leave the piece as nursemaid to a collection of biographies — with such a contentious remark?

Johnson is starting with an assumption of eminence: the wise reader, the misunderstood friend. Richard Savage had genuine poetic gifts. Like Pope and others, he railed at the cruelty and stupidity of eighteenth century life. But he was also a spendthrift, a liar and n’er-do-well, qualities which Johnson chose to ignore. With his uncouthness, phobias and habitual melancholy, Johnson had his own blinding difficulties, which he surmounted by constructing an alternative life, first in books, and then as a literary personality. Boswell and Johnson were made for each other, and we have to read well beyond that biography to understand the horrors of Johnson’s real existence.

‘The Life of Savage’ was Johnson’s first excursion into biography, and the attention it attracted led to the Dictionary of the English Language and other commissions: years of drudgery but also growing independence. Johnson accepts his friend’s claim on society, that he suffered the malice of his aristocratic mother, whose anger at an unhappy marriage was directed towards the offspring from an affair designed to annul that marriage. So are the rich and favourably placed, Johnson implies: no one will envy them for a moment, any more than they would envy the writer if they knew his hardships.

But no one did envy Johnson. His standing in society was self-constructed, if not self-imagined. Readers like to think the best of their heroes, but Johnson was not a society lion because too clever or learned for society, but because he lacked a touch even of its manners. Perversely, through the penury of the early years, that provincial combativeness kept him going. By religion and physical deformity, Pope was equally disadvantaged, but chose a different route, and their paths barely crossed. Where Pope’s work became more polished, Johnson’s pessimism gradually took on the somber outlines of more universal truths: {7}

Slow rises worth, by poverty depress’d:
But here more slow, where all are slaves to gold,
Where looks are merchandise, and smiles are sold. {8}

Yet hope not life from grief or danger free,
Nor think the doom of man revers’d for thee; {9}

Must helpless man, in ignorance sedate,
Roll darkling down the torrent of his fate? {10}

In his prose, however, Johnson settled for a mechanical arrangement of rhythmic checks and balances, which break into platitudes what he may or may not have felt. When the emotion did escape, Johnson could be monstrously unfair to his social betters, as he was to Chesterton, or the long-suffering subscribers to his books. But Johnson knew he was not entirely sane, and those fears he transposed to magnificent homilies, distillations of common human experience {11 that were strikingly pleasing but not always relevant or convincing. Behind the craggy personality that everyone knows and loves, Johnson was a self-effacing author, probably because he had to be, but other Augustans might serve as better models today. Listen to the hobbled poetry that undershadows his prose, admire what one man achieved against crushing disabilities, but do not suppose that clarity is what makes Johnson great.


1. Prose, Francine. “Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them” (HarperCollinsPublishers, 2006), 39.
2. Johnson, Samuel. “
The Life of Savage” Edited by Jack Lynch. 2007.
3. Saintsbury, George. “A History of English Prose Rhythm” (Macmillan, 1912: Greenwood Press, 1978), 227-92.
4. Folkenflik, Robert. “
Samuel Johnson: Additional Reading” 2007.
5. NNDB. ”
Samuel Johnson” 2007.
6. Holmes, Richard. “
Dr. Johnson & Mr. Savage” (Random House, 1998).
7. Brown, Wallace Cable, The Triumph of Form: A Study of the Later Masters of the Heroic Couplet (North Carolina Press, 1948: Greenwood Press, 1973), 67-86.
8. Johnson, Samuel. “
London“, 176-9. Jack Lynch 2007.
9. Johnson, Samuel. “The Vanity of Human Wishes”, 155-6.
10. Johnson, Samuel. “The Vanity of Human Wishes”, 347-8.
11. Dalrymple, Theodore. “
What Makes Doctor Johnson Great?” City Journal, Autumn 2006 .

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