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Mr. Los Angeles, Samuel Johnson

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Amy Wilentz is the author, most recently, of "I Feel Earthquakes More Often Than They Happen." She teaches literary journalism at UC Irvine.

This year marks the 300th anniversary of Samuel Johnson’s birth, and in honor of that occasion, the Huntington Library has staged a new exhibition honoring the 18th century lexicographer, a man of letters who wore a wig, drank port and addressed his friends as “Sirrah.”

The other day, I went to San Marino to immerse myself in the vastness of Johnson’s literary production and to read his stirring, inexorable prose, often in its first editions. In the process, I rediscovered Johnson not only as a great moralist and profound humanist but, to the surprise of someone who lives in a city that had not even been imagined in Dr. Johnson’s time, as a firm cultural backboard against which to bounce ideas about cities and the society they engender.

Johnson, I concluded, could have lived happily in Los Angeles. It’s true he might have felt a bit out of place at the Huntington reception honoring his work. It is hard to imagine the stout, massive Johnson, in wig, waistcoat and breeches, perched on one of the Huntington’s delicate folding chairs, downing chicken pesto sliders in the setting sun and sipping at a plastic cup of cold California white. But he was an inspired dinner guest, which matters in L.A., a place of dinner parties.

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He had, like many in our city’s social vortex, an overwhelming ambition to participate and to dazzle as well as an intense desire to please, his clumsiness turned into grace by his brilliance, his secret despair wrought painstakingly into humor.

Of course, he was always more so than any of his contemporaries: more intelligent, more intellectually devastating, sharper, more penetrating and far better spoken. The English language was a handy weapon for him, and he was quick to wield it.

He was a country boy, like so many who come to L.A. to make a name for themselves. After leaving Oxford for lack of funds, Johnson the dropout spent about a decade roaming through London, destitute, sometimes homeless, trying to carve out a life for himself, publishing for a pittance in Grub Street rags.

He’d made a fast friend out of the soon-to-be-legendary actor David Garrick, and eventually the two of them, along with Sir Joshua Reynolds, the great painter, founded a club, a salon that eventually included the novelist Oliver Goldsmith, the philosopher Edmund Burke and his biographer, James Boswell, among others. The club was, wrote Walter Jackson Bate, the Johnson scholar, “the most remarkable assemblage of diverse talents that has ever met so frequently for the sole purpose of conversation.”

Johnson and his circle met at 7 in the evening on Mondays at the Turk’s Head. This club, called the Club, was Johnson’s only club, and it became the prototype for the exclusive gatherings that, a century later, dotted the social topography of London’s elites. None of the Club’s informal members needed another group -- theirs was the British intellectual oligarchy of its day.

In L.A. today, there are, to my knowledge, at least five such clubs, and that is only one person’s experience. Johnson would probably say there need to be so many because their achievements are so few. There’s David Horowitz’s club of Hollywood conservatives that meets on Wednesday mornings, and a slightly less conservative group that meets on the first Friday of every month at a hilltop Hollywood restaurant at 6 p.m., an hour Johnson would have found uncivilized. There’s the Morons (its actual name), a wandering club dominated by journalists, too big really to be called a salon, more of an ad hoc movable potluck for hungry Grub Street types. There’s the Geniuses, more formally known as the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities, which has a sit-down luncheon every two weeks at USC, bringing together “academics and writers, musicians and dancers, curators and critics, journalists and poets,” according to the institute’s founding documents. Johnson surely would have been horrified. He had no ear or liking for music and considered dancers a very low group indeed, certainly not worth talking to. Plus: lunch?

And there is Arianna Huffington’s dining room table. Huffington may be the closest thing Los Angeles has to a Johnson, although her hair is different and, as a friend of Johnson’s said on hearing of his death, “Johnson is dead. Let us go to the next best. There is nobody -- no man can be said to put you in mind of Johnson.”

Like Huffington, Johnson considered conversation a kind of sparkling competition, and the Club operated on the same rule as Huffington’s table, more or less: Only one conversation at a time. No sidebars. Johnson said that the proof of the inequality of men was that, if you put two next to each other, before half an hour was up, one would have shown his superiority. And everyone who has read him knows better than to try to emulate the Good Doctor. “Almost all absurdity of conduct,” as he said, “arises from the imitation of those whom we cannot resemble.”

Johnson’s dictionary was his era’s Wikipedia, its Google, and Johnson himself was the 18th century equivalent of a blogger. “Posterity will be astonished when they are told, upon the authority of Johnson himself,” Boswell wrote, “that many of these discourses, which we should suppose had been laboured with all the slow attention of literary leisure, were written in haste as the moment pressed, without even being read over by him before they were printed.” Johnson’s dictionary, on view in all its splendid hugeness at the Huntington, has nearly 43,000 entries and many more quotes from English literature supporting each word. It was put together almost entirely by his recalling the works in which certain words had been used.

Johnson thought he would finish his lexicon in three years, and on being told that it took the French Academy 40 years and the work of 40 scholars to write the French dictionary, he replied: “Sir, thus it is. This is the proportion. Let me see; 40 times 40 is 1,600. So as three is to 1,600, so is the proportion of an Englishman to a Frenchman.” (Math was not his forte.) The dictionary actually took him nine painful years. Once it was published, his fame was ensured.

As we think about Johnson and the modern world, it is important to reject the idea that his world, which prized the written and spoken word and valued an important thought well expressed, is lost. “Blind Sam,” the Johnson portrait by Reynolds that presides over the exhibit at the Huntington, shows Johnson holding an open book, its pages folded back, in his two hands, very close up to his face, his cloudy wig like weather atop a stormy mind, a knot of intense concentration between his brows. Another Reynolds portrait shows him leaning back in a chair, his imposing stomach released by an unbuttoned jacket, a plumed pen in his hand and a manuscript on the table before him. Only a small trick of the imagination, a smudge here, a narrowing there, and he is James Wolcott, he is Huffington, he is Jon Stewart.

He’s not holding a Kindle, it’s true, and he’s not sitting at a keyboard. And certainly he would look askance at today’s utter democratization of the published word. But in his dictionary, he defines a writer as “1. One who practices the art of writing; 2. an author.” These are not elitist definitions. They can easily include Johnson, Goldsmith and Boswell, as well as anyone from Stephanie Meyer to William Vollmann to the toilers at Gawker and Huffpo and “The Daily Show.” Community and honesty were among the things Dr. Johnson most prized in his acquaintances, and that is still what it takes, today, to create a world of ideas and keep it spinning.


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