Dr. Johnson’s Ghost


I could swear I spotted Samuel Johnson the other day, while still in Colorado. He was a large man, so large in fact, that he couldn’t help but appear to be bumbling about. I don’t mean that he was a man simply beset with a paunch after too many midnight sausage and beer forays with the other literary giants; what I mean is that everything about the man was large, including his lips, his nose, his head, his neck, his thick fingers, and the clothes that ill-fitted his big-boned frame.

For a moment—and only a moment—I envisioned the man in buckled shoes, short pants, a jacket buttoned tightly over the shirt that rose up to his chin with a tie at the collar, as if he were attempting to contain with one knot the thick neck beneath. I almost watched the filthy wig slip to the side as the man bent his head and hid his face behind a newspaper. However, the image slipped instead of the wig. The ghost of Samuel Johnson disappeared, leaving a man in jeans and a striped button-down shirt who didn’t really appreciate me staring at him.

I’m beginning to think that the ghost of Samuel Johnson haunts me, and I wonder what the Doc means to tell me. It seems I can’t go anywhere without his name, his visage, his words rearing up before me. Perhaps, I’ve simply created a world in which the great doctor can exist. After all, it makes sense I would encounter him in the introduction to The Female Quixote. As might be expected, Samuel Johnson gave patronage to Charlotte Lennox. According to Sir John Hawkins, Johnson had the audacity to throw her an all-night party at a tavern*:

“Johnson had directed that a magnificent hot apple-pye should make a part of it, and this he would have stuck with bay-leaves, because, forsooth, Mrs. Lenox was an authoress, and had written verses; and further, he had prepared for her a crown of laurel. . .”

On several occasions, I’ve had conversations with the grey-bearded man who makes the coffee at the local Anglican Church, in which Johnson plays a starring role. For certain definitions of religious and political words, he searches through the enormous volumes—the tomes as large as the doctor, himself—of Johnson’s dictionary. Sometimes, I admit, I linger in the kitchen area of the church just in case I might hear the name Samuel Johnson dropped in the midst of fruit washing and cheese slicing.

It was during my first writer’s getaway weekend that, after writing all day, drinking plenty of wine, and soaking in the mineral springs, I discovered the pocket volume of Samuel Johnson’s Insults. Now I carry it around with me, just in case. Is it any coincidence, really, that Johnson invaded my writing weekend?

My list of running against Johnson’s stout form doesn’t end there, but this passage of writing is growing, so I must stop and beg the muse to explain his presence to me—not the muse’s presence, of course. And I would also like to request that Dr. Johnson throw me an all-night party, in which he doesn’t crown me with a laurel, but in which he passes his greatness to me—in which he, in fact, says something to the nature of, “Well, I know you don’t live in London, but neither do I any longer. So, my friend, until we meet in heaven, you must carry on the tradition by writing a dictionary, or at least some decent poetry.”

*Sir John Hawkins quote taken from Margaret Anne Doody’s intro to the Oxford edition of The Female Quixote

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