John Hawkins on clubable Dr. Johnson

Sir John Hawkins is known more widely for what Samuel Johnson called him -- ``a very unclubable man'' -- than for his Johnson biography (1787), which was eclipsed by James Boswell's famous later work. In this passage from Bertram H. Davis's 1961 edition of ``The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D,'' Hawkins tells about the very clubable Johnson years before Boswell knew him.

I had opportunities of observing what others have taken occasion to remark, viz. not only that in conversation Johnson made it a rule to talk his best, but that on many subjects he was not uniform in his opinions, contending as often for victory as for truth; at one time good, at another evil was predominant in the moral constitution of the world. Upon one occasion, he would deplore the nonobservance of Good Friday, and on another deny, that among us of the present age there is any decline of public worship. He would sometimes contradict self-evident propositions, such as, that the luxury of this country has increased with its riches; and that the practice of card playing is more general than heretofore. At this versatility of temper, none, however, took offence; as Alexander and Caesar were born for conquest, so was Johnson for the office of a symposiarch, to preside in all conversations; and I never yet saw the man who would venture to contest his right.

Let it not, however, be imagined, that the members of this our club met together, with the temper of gladiators, or that there was wanting among us a disposition to yield to each other in all diversities of opinion, and indeed, disputation was not, as in many associations of this kind, the purpose of our meeting: nor were our conversations, like those of the Rota Club, restrained to particular topics. On the contrary, it may be said, that with our gravest discourses was intermingled Mirth, that after no repenting draws, Milton for not only in Johnson's melancholy there were lucid intervals, but he was a great contributor to the mirth of conversation, by the many witty sayings he uttered, and the many excellent stories which his memory had treasured up, and he would on occasion relate; so that those are greatly mistaken who infer, either from the general tendency of his writings, or that appearance of hebetude which marked his countenance when living, and is discernible in the pictures and prints of him, that he could only reason and discuss, dictate, and control.

In the talent of humour there hardly ever was his equal, except perhaps among the old comedians, such as Tarleton, and a few others mentioned by Cibber. By means of this he was enabled to give to any relation that required it, the graces and aids of expression, and to discriminate with the nicest exactness the characters of those whom it concerned.

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