Thu, 25 Jan 2018
For me, a little of Samuel Johnson goes a long way, because he was a tremendous asshole, and the draught is too strong for me to take much at once. But he is at his best when he is in opposition to someone who is an even bigger asshole, in this case James Macpherson.
Macpherson was a Scottish poet who perpetrated a major hoax for his own literary benefit. He claimed to have discovered and translated a collection of 3rd-century Gaelic manuscripts, written by a bard named Ossian, which he then published, with great commercial and critical success.
Thomas Bailey Saunders, in The Life and Letters of James Macpherson (1894), writes:
Ossian and Macpherson did receive a great deal of criticism. Much of it was rooted in anti-Scottish bigotry, but many people at the time correctly suspected that Macpherson had written the "translations” himself, from scratch or nearly so. There was a great controversy, in which nobody participated more forcefully (or impolitely) than Johnson, a noted anti-Scottish bigot, who said that not only was the poems’ claimed history fraudulent, but that the poems themselves were rubbish.
The argument raged for some time. Johnson took up the matter in Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775), in which he said:
Macpherson was furious to learn, before it was published, what Journey to the Western Islands would say, and attempted to prevent the passage from appearing in the book at all. When he discovered he was too late for this, he suggested that a slip of paper be inserted into the printed copies, apologizing and withdrawing the paragraph. This suggestion was ignored, and Johnson's book was published with no alteration.
Macpherson then challenged Johnson to a duel, and then, Johnson having declined, sent him a final letter, now lost, which a contemporary described as telling Johnson:
(John Clark, An Answer to Mr. [William] Shaw's Inquiry, p. 51. Reprinted in Works of Ossian, vol. 1, 1783.)
Johnson's famous reply to this letter, quoted by Boswell, was:
Both Macpherson and Johnson are buried in Westminster Abbey. Some say Macpherson bought his way in.