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Fiction is easier than discernment

Defamation is sufficiently copious. The general lampooner of mankind may find long exercise for his zeal or wit, in the defects of nature, the vexations of life, the follies of opinion, and the corruptions of practice. But fiction is easier than discernment; and most of these writers spare themselves the labour of inquiry, and exhaust their virulence upon imaginary crimes, which, as they never existed, can never be amended.
Samuel Johnson, The Idler, no. 45.

This week’s episode of On The Media contained an interview with Eric Burns, author of All the News Unfit to Print: How Things Were… And How They Were Reported. This blog isn’t the place for modern political issues, so I’ll steer clear of my skepticism about his defense of McCarthyism. But I cannot allow his highly unconventional (to put it politely) description of Johnson’s Debates in the Senate of Lilliput to go unchallenged. In the interview, Burns says that Johnson was hired in 1720 by Gentleman’s Quarterly to cover the debates of Parliament. In fact, GQ wouldn’t exist for another 200 years; it was Gentleman’s Magazine that Johnson worked for. And he was 11 years old in 1720; he started writing the debates in 1740. I suspect these are both simple slips of the tongue, and rendered correctly in the book, but it doesn’t exactly inspire me with confidence in his grasp of the issues.

Moving on to the substance of the matter, Burns charges that Johnson was assigned the job of Parliament beat reporter, but was too lazy to attend the debates, and so simply made them up. In his view, because of Johnson’s sloth and mendacity we have no real historical record of the period.

The reality is considerably different. The press was in fact barred from reporting Parliamentary debates at this time, so Johnson’s reports were by necessity wrapped in a layer of fiction: from the title, reflecting the conceit that they were written by Lemuel Gulliver’s grandson, to the anagrammed and otherwise distorted names of the speakers. Johnson would have been expelled or worse if he’d simply sat in the gallery taking notes, so instead he worked at home, composing the speeches based on smuggled out reports of who spoke and on what issues. Any gap in the historical record is Parliament’s doing, not Johnson’s. Furthermore, as Robert Folkenflik points out in the Cambridge Companion to Samuel Johnson, the reports are full of cues to readers that they are not literal transcriptions of the speeches; phrases like “spoke in this effect” or “spoke to this purpose” introduce many of the speeches.

Painting Johnson as the Stephen Glass of the 18th century is ahistorical grandstanding, and doesn’t stand up to any meaningful encounter with the facts.

(Opinions expressed are of course my own, and not Harvard’s.)

Debates in the Senate of Lilliput

Debates in the Senate of Lilliput

Published in:John Overholt |on May 4th, 2009 |Comments Off on Fiction is easier than discernment

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