Every well-read person used to know Johnson’s Lives of the Poets, and, knowing that collection, knew who Richard Savage was—or at least knew who Richard Savage told people he was.
Richard Savage was a minor poet and convicted murderer, a charming rascal and rackety man about town entirely lacking normal instincts of prudence and self-preservation. Judged as material for a book, he was a striking example of the way life not only imitates fiction, but can become virtually indistinguishable from it. Savage claimed with obsessive pertinacity to be the illegitimate son of Earl Rivers and Anne, Lady Macclesfield. He told everyone he met that his alleged mother had disowned and abused him, and over a period of about 25 years he made her life miserable with libel, blackmail, and the threat of violence. Written down and published by Savage and his friends, the story acquired the convincing objectivity of print.
Such claims to identity, originating in the paranoias and anxieties of life, are fascinating. Passionately believed by the claimant and his supporters, they resisted final proof until modern times brought the invention of DNA testing. It seems likely that most of them, like more common but similar claims to noble descent, have been false. In the case of Savage, he was probably the child of a nurse or servant employed by Lady Macclesfield or someone close to her, who knew about her illegitimate children and passed the story on. Whatever the source of such claims, the narrative framing the alleged fact of birth usually conforms to current fashion in storytelling, whether it involves lost colonists and drowned sailors or, as with Savage, the conviction that an anonymous 18th-century Nobody can turn out to be Somebody after all.
A self-created, well-published, and widely read fiction. Savage as witty, noble bastard was a character from literature who had migrated into the London streets, coffee houses, and taverns via the pages of Grub Street newsletters and magazines. His fictional contemporaries were the heroes of Fielding, but Shakespeare’s Edmund in King Lear was among his ancestors. One might even say that as an inhabitant of, writer for, and creation of Grub Street, Savage was a dream come true, the embodiment of one of Dryden’s or Swift’s nightmares of social and literary subversion. So, for that matter, was his friend, the young Samuel Johnson, when he first arrived in London as an aspiring Grub Street hack.
Outside the shrinking circles of the literate, Johnson is now remembered, if at all, as the self-confident sage and conversationalist of Boswell’s Life: wise, funny, kind, sensible, and, above all, reliable in word and in person; the very embodiment of the Man of Letters. Yet Boswell’s Johnson, like Richard Savage, was an imaginative creation, and the Johnson his other friends knew—Mrs. Thrale, for instance—was a rather different man. He was still funny, self-confident, and a wonderful talker and writer, but he was not always reliable, not always terribly sensible, and often difficult to cope with. Moreover, he had once been young, desperately unhappy, and near to hopelessness.
In March 1737 Samuel Johnson, having ventured and lost his wife’s small capital, went to London to scrape a living from writing. He was 27 years old, a brilliant young man handicapped by a grotesquely ugly appearance: tall, rawboned, partly blind, scarred by scrofula, and afflicted by spasmodic tics and convulsive movements. His recent, bizarre marriage to a woman more than 20 years older than himself was proving unsatisfactory, and he was developing nomadic tendencies, on occasion preferring a night in the streets to sharing lodgings with his wife.
This was the period when, soon after his arrival in London, he met Savage, and the unlikely pair—dapper wit and self-made nobleman; big, awkward provincial—became friends. The friendship lasted several years, providing Johnson’s biographers with a famous anecdote and also with a problem. The anecdote told how young Johnson and the older Savage, both hard-up, would spend the night walking the streets of London, unable to afford lodging. The problem arose from the friendship itself: How could one explain Dr. Johnson’s intimate association with a notoriously bad lot like Richard Savage?
A reader of Johnson’s Life of Savage encounters at least two related problems. Why did a man as temperamentally skeptical as Johnson accept Savage’s stories? And how can one preserve Johnson’s reputation as a man of literary conscience and moral sympathy in the face of his savage, libelous attacks on Savage’s putative mother, Lady Macclesfield, not to mention the sheer inaccuracy of his Life? The two questions have simple though unflattering answers. Johnson was a raw provincial with a chip on his shoulder when he met Savage, already celebrated as a poet and as the embodiment of a personal legend. Savage’s talk and character dazzled him, and his attention flattered him. Then, when Savage died a few years later, Johnson found himself well placed to write a saleable Life, which he published (as Richard Holmes points out) with a firm known for sensational books. Holmes’s tactic is to incorporate both answers into his book, dignifying them by dwelling on the significance of Savage’s life and Johnson’s response to it. “When Johnson came to write Savage’s Life in 1743, he put Savage’s night walking at the heart of the story of his literary career. He did it so powerfully that he created a legend, almost an 18th-century archetype, of the Outcast Poet moving through an infernal cityscape.” And so Holmes presents Johnson’s Life of Savage and the man himself as precursors of the Romantic movement.
This makes for impressive writing, but is it true? After all, the whole 18th century could be treated as the precursor of Romanticism. The problem with Dr. Johnson & Mr. Savage is that it is a literary brick made without straw. The only evidence for Johnson’s friendship with Savage is his own anecdote of the night walks, and the Life itself. Holmes’s book consists of his interpretation of those two pieces of evidence, framed in material drawn from standard works on both authors.
It is not a convincing interpretation. As reported by Johnson’s friends, his telling of the anecdote did not present London as “an infernal cityscape,” but as the setting for a high-spirited defiance of circumstances. Nor is it likely that most readers of the Life would put the night walks at the center of it. Nothing in Johnson’s approach encourages one to find that kind of symbolist form in the book.
Insofar as the Life has a central, recurrent theme, it is Savage’s tale of abandonment by his mother, the only aspect of his story which Johnson accepted unreservedly. Indeed, not to have accepted it would have gone against the expectations of his readers. For as Holmes’s narrative reveals without its author quite realizing it, there was a moment when Savage’s private fantasy and its related campaign of stalking, libel, and blackmail became a public phenomenon, and the entire social and literary world ganged up on poor Lady Macclesfield, making Savage famous in the process. In this way his story became the basis of his relationship to the world, including young Samuel Johnson: friendship with Savage required acceptance of his legend. Holmes, intent upon scrutinizing the mouse of the midnight walks, misses entirely this truly extraordinary mountain of significance that brought them forth.
In Johnson’s friendship with Savage, and in his writing of the Life, we catch him in deep collusion with the group psychology of his time. The position was not to his credit, but he was not alone in it. All sorts of unlikely people believed Savage, and offered him friendship and money, Alexander Pope among them. No doubt the effective opener of so many hearts and purses, including young Johnson’s, was the claim to noble birth; and one aspect of the many-faceted joke that resulted was that Savage, securely locked into his own delusions of nobility, always ended up treating his benefactors with contempt because their charity affronted his dignity. There were incidents of sheer farce. Believing Savage to be his cousin, Lord Tyrconnel took him into his house and gave him a pension of 200 pounds; Savage brought disreputable drinking cronies in for the night, and pawned the books Tyrconnel gave him. None of this struck Johnson as at ail funny.
One sympathizes with Holmes’s wish to modify the Bosviellian picture of Johnson by incorporating into it the man who knew and admired Savage. On the other hand, one respects Boswell for his uneasiness over Johnson’s credulity and for doubting Savage’s claims. There is, in fact, a fairly important but unadoring book to be written, relating Savage’s story to the fictions of his time and attempting to understand why Johnson and everyone else so eagerly believed it. This book might begin by pointing out some contrasts—between Johnson’s judicious, authoritative prose and his tatterdemalion subject, between the forgiving irony of his comments on Savage and the unmitigated ferocity of his attacks on Lady Macclesfield. It would notice, too, hew many 18th-century writers—Pope, Swift, and Johnson among them, to name only the three greatest—led uncentered, displaced emotional lives. The precision of their writing may express their self-mastery and courage, but the stories they told and enjoyed often revealed how unhappy and angry they were.
This is territory Holmes skirts without entering it. One of his best chapters, “Love,” reproduces (slightly inaccurately) a Johnsonian anecdote told twice by Mrs. Thrale in Thraliana and in her published Anecdotes. It seems that in the course of a light conversation about a novel by Fanny Burney, Johnson was asked what had been the happiest period of his life. He replied with one of the saddest sentences in the annals of English literature: “It was that year in which he spent one whole evening with Molly Aston.” This happy evening occurred some 40 years before the date of the question. Holmes quotes the sentence as evidence that Johnson was capable of love; what it really shows is how little love he experienced.
[Dr. Johnson & Mr. Savage, by Richard Holmes (New York: Pantheon Books) 260 pp., $23.00]