Saturday, July 25, 2009

Samuel Johnson's London

After the Great Fire in 1666 the engines of wealth and power began to generate the renovation of London in a rebuilding and extension to the west, clearing away much of the old to make place for the commercially and fashionably new. The fire was in a way a blessing because its ancient centre had burned down, allowing the laying out of wider streets and more public spaces, the envy of cities like Paris. But it was not until around mid-eighteenth century that the pace of growth really picked up. In 1757 the houses on London Bridge were demolished and foul Fleet Ditch was filled up. A few years later the City was opened up through the removal of its ancient gates, creating more fluid movement of trade and people. The city would not have lighting and paving throughout until the first Westminister Paving Act of 1762, the year Boswell first visited: gutters and underground drains, paving-stone replacing pebbles in the main streets, and a central system of street repair and cleaning making walking in London even safer and more pleasant.

In the newer areas of London to the west lovely squares were created that became the addresses of the aristocracy and rich. As a modern historian of London has put it, "From Covent Garden through St James's to Mayfair, the West End was wide and handsome, built to please those with money to burn and time to kill". Indeed, Georgian London took shape as a 'well-mapped topography of pleasure', but Johnson's area, Fleet Street and the Strand connecting Westminister and the City, was the place to be to watch life pass by in all its variety. "Fleet Street has a very animated appearance,' wrote Johnson in later years, and he thought that at Charing Cross could be seen 'the full tide of human existence.'

Most of all, London was the genuine city of the Enlightenment, the scene of ideas-in-action, pragmatic liberty and dashing, dazzling spirit. Eighteenth-century London was truly revolutionary long before the French Revolution, 'a revolution in mood, a blaze of slogans, delivering the shock of the new'. The French philosophes cast their eyes across the channel to England as the cradle of the modern, and anglophiles on the Continent 'celebrated Britain's constitutional monarchy and freedom under the law, its open society, its prosperity and religious toleration.' At just the time Johnson came to London, the city was embracing a print culture that proved to be the envy of the world, with periodicals and magazines of specialized and general interest- The Gentleman's Magazine was the most successful of the latter kind- cropping up out of nowhere, as well as novels, prints, and even pornography, all devoured by a hungry reading public.

As Johnson put it, this was an 'age of authors'- of both sexes. There seemingly were no limits or boundaries. Travellers, 'knowledge-mongers', writers, musicians, artists, and scientists, they came in great numbers from distant regions and countries to see what it was all about, and many like Handel, Haydn, Benjamin Franklin, and Pasquale Paoli, the exiled Corsican patriot, lingered or stayed to create because their geniuses found the spirit of modernity and freedom congenial. Knowledge 'generally diffused' was the icon of the age- 'society is held together by communication and information,' Johnson said.

What intoxicatingly flooded in to Johnson's life in those first heady days in London was uniquely English: 'England's modernizers had no stomach for the indigestible scholastic husks; they were not ivory-towered academics but men (and women) of letters who made their pitch in the metropolitan market .' Johnson very quickly came to subscribe to the notion of the un-cloistered writer playing with social and market forces in order to get his message out to the public."

1 comment:

  1. "Samuel Johnson; A Biography" by Peter Martin;
    The Belknap Press, Cambridge, MA. 2008