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Johnson, Rasselas, and the Choice of Criticism

Johnson, Rasselas, and the Choice of Criticism

Copyright Date: 1989
Pages: 224
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    Johnson, Rasselas, and the Choice of Criticism
    Book Description:

    Although Rasselas has received more critical commentary than almost any other work by Samuel Johnson, Edward Tomarken's book is the first full length study to focus on his tale of thePrince of Abyssinia. This anomaly arises, as Tomarken shows, because Rasselas has remained resistant to the customary critical approaches of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, consistently eliciting new kinds of insights and raising new sorts of problems.

    Tomarken' s contribution is a new methodology to explain this phenomenon. He sees Johnson's early writings,LondonandIrene, as instances of the writer trying with only partial success to achieve what he first realized inThe Vanity of Human Wishes, a means of permitting literary form to refer to conduct. Later works, such asThe Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, are viewed as further developments of this method, which achieved its fullest expression in Rasselas and the Life of Pope.

    Such a reading of Johnson develops an aesthetic that operates on the margins between the literary and the extra-literary. Although Johnson's own critical view was unable to accommodate such a position, Tomarken shows that in practice he moved toward it by a process of trial and error manifest in his poetry and narratives. When raised to the level of critical method, this approach goes beyond the assumptions not only of Johnson's day but also of our own.

    Tomarken's theoretical coda demonstrates how the choices of current critical theory, like those in the marriage debate in Rasselas, can be understood to interact with one another. Specifically, he proposes a dialectical relationship for two approaches hermeneutics and structuralism-usually seen as opposed to one another. This innovative study will interest not only Johnson scholars but all those concerned with critical theory.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-6177-8
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Abbreviations Used
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-2)

    THIS BOOK focuses onRasselas:the analysis of other works by Johnson applies a method derived from the story of the Prince of Abyssinia. In that sense, this book is the first full-length study ofRasselas.Yet a brief glance at the standard critical bibliography reveals that, with the possible exception of theDictionary, Rasselashas received more commentary than any other work in the canon. Why have so many essays been written about a tale that has never been the subject of a book? A preliminary analysis of these critical essays reveals that the narrative has been subjected to...

  6. Part I. Rasselas and the Critics

    • 1 A History of Rasselas Criticism, 1759-1986
      (pp. 5-37)

      RASSELASHAS been the most widely read and continuously commented upon of all of Johnson’s writings. Since its publication in 1759 hardly a year has gone by that has not produced a new edition of or essay upon the text.¹ Even during the nineteenth century, when Johnson’s own writings were neglected in favor of Boswell’sLife, Rasselascontinued to be reissued and analyzed. In fact, because of the Victorian neglect of the Johnson canon,Rasselasis the only one of Johnson’s literary works with a continuous critical history. As a locus criticus, Rasselas has been the subject of a controversy...

    • 2 Prison-Paradise: Preparation for Entry into the World
      (pp. 38-52)

      THE SOURCE of the two-century-old religious controversy concerningRasselasis evident in the first sentence of the tale. “Ye who listen with credulity to the whispers of fancy, and pursue with eagerness the phantoms of hope; who expect that age will perform the promises of youth, and that the deficiencies of the present day will be supplied by the morrow; attend to the history of Rasselas prince of Abissinia.” In its diction, cadence, and rhythm, this invocation is reminiscent of the Book of Ecclesiastes, and accordingly, a number of commentators have labeled Rasselas an apologue. But, as we have already...

    • 3 The History of Imlac: Methodological Implications
      (pp. 53-72)

      AFTER HAVING seen how the happy valley nurtures the prince’s desire to find the choice of life and, in the flying incident, how the thwarting of this expectation serves educational purposes, we meet Imlac, who tells his life story. This narrative takes up the next six chapters, about half of the happy valley section, and contains perhaps the most famous part in the book, chapter 10, lmlac’s “dissertation upon poetry.” This tale within a tale so inspires the young prince that he asks Imlac to be his guide in the choice-of-life quest. Imlac also guides the reader ofRasselas:the...

    • 4 A Journey to Understanding
      (pp. 73-106)

      THE EDUCATIONAL journey is so pervasive in eighteenth-century fiction that few narratives of the period are without it in one form or another. But the motive for Rasselas’ journey is different from that of Moll Flanders, Tom Jones, or Candide. The prince of Abyssinia searches not for financial security or his beloved Sophia or Cunégonde but for the choice of life. This phrase, as we have seen, contains allusions to religious, historical, horticultural, and literary elements of the paradise-on-earth tradition. Johnson’s educational journey is thus to be distinguished from those of Defoe, Fielding, Voltaire, and other writers of his day...

  7. Part II. A Literary-Critical Journey

    • 5 Trial and Error: Irene and London
      (pp. 109-127)

      INRASSELAS,Johnson successfully applies a dialectic of literary perspectives outside of the literary to the realm of action, to the proper conduct of the choice-of-life quest. WhenRasselasfirst appeared, Johnson was nearly fifty years old, in the middle of his writing career. I want now, in this chapter and the next to turn back to his early career to analyze how he designed a linguistic form that pointed beyond the bounds of words. Proper conduct, in a moral and religious sense, is the subject ofThe Vanity of Human Wishes,which appeared a decade beforeRasselas;the next...

    • 6 Form and Reference: The Vanity of Human Wishes
      (pp. 128-149)

      IN CHAPTER 1 we saw that throughout the nineteenth century and until the middle of the present centuryRasselaswas considered to be a prose version ofThe Vanity of Human Wishes.But recent criticism and scholarship have established that these works are related to separate generic traditions and evince different formal characteristics. In 1969 Howard Weinbrot provided an introduction to the genre ofThe Vanity,¹ that of the imitation, a popular form in the eighteenth century, and in 1975 R.G. Peterson explained how Johnson employed this literary tradition: “Johnson, for all his knowledge of Latin and Greek . ....

    • 7 Historical Understanding: A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland
      (pp. 150-164)

      AFTER THE publication ofRasselasin 1759, Johnson wrote only one more lengthy literary work. Most of his efforts during the 1760s and 1770s were devoted to literary-critical projects. In fact, during this period he produced his longest and most important critical works, the edition of Shakespeare (1765) and theLives of the Poets(1779-1781). The title alone of the latter,Prefaces Biographical and Critical to the Works of the English Poets,makes plain an interest in the relationship between literature and history. Halfway between these two great monuments, Johnson publishedA Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland,which...

    • 8 The Limitations of Perspectivism: The Lives of Rasselas and Pope
      (pp. 165-178)

      FROM THE beginning of his career, Johnson sought a means of presenting the relationship between the literary and the extraliterary. InIrene,the tragic dilemma was to be situated in the historical context of fifteenth-century Constantinople; inLondon,the problem of the urban poet was to be firmly placed in London. InThe Vanity of Human Wishes,Johnson first found a means of creating a balanced relationship between these two opposing elements, a dialectic favoring neither of its poles. Johnson’s profound religious faith led him to recognize that the observer of vanity qua observer can become involved in various forms...

    • 9 Theoretical Conclusion
      (pp. 179-181)

      THE APPROACH developed in this study has application beyond the realm of Johnson. One need only think of the axis of perspectives apparent in the first two books ofGulliver’s Travels,the literary process essential to most fictional works of the period, and the referential element of formal verse satire, not to mention modern works in which the literary boundary is deliberately flouted to create verbal collages. The present study, however, focused onRasselasbecause, having been the subject of a critical controversy for over two centuries, it raised the problem to the level of methodology. I began with a...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 182-193)
  9. A Chronological Checklist of Rasselas Criticism, 1759-1986
    (pp. 194-202)
  10. Index
    (pp. 203-210)