Samuel Johnson and community

Michael J Chappell, Fordham University


This dissertation is an examination of community as it exists in selected Ramblers, Rasselas, the Dictionary, and the Lives of the Poets. My readings of Johnson's texts challenge the valuation of Johnson as little more than a Christian moralist, as well as question the notion of Johnson's authoritarianism. Indeed, Johnson continually subverts his own authority by placing it in the hands of other speakers (as in the female Ramblers and Rasselas) and in other writers (as in the Dictionary and the Lives of the Poets). As Johnson explores various facets of community, he argues against the increased impact of commercialization, consumerism, imperialism, colonial exploitation, and examines the social roles allotted to women and men in England. Underlying the ethical arguments in the Rambler, the search for “the choice of life” in Rasselas, the construction of the Dictionary, and the interactions of authors in the Lives of the Poets is community in many forms and manifestations. The primary impulse for community derives from a desire to counterbalance the rise of self-interest and social fragmentation caused by changes in the socioeconomic structure of eighteenth-century England. Though he is pleased that the rise of a capital-based economic system has made more wealth available to more Englishmen, he also sees the devastation this economic system brings with it. In the end, Johnson critiques the morality underlying the rush for individual wealth and personal satisfaction, which he finds at odds with the concerns of the commonwealth and with communal good. I examine four types of community in Johnson's texts. These communities are centered around women's roles in society in selected Ramblers , the conflicts within and alternatives to families in Rasselas , the linguistic communities existing in the Dictionary, and a large literary community in the Lives of the Poets. By reading Johnson's texts as meditations on community, we open up Johnson's ideas to interpretations of broader political concerns. This can lead us to a greater understanding of the secular and political ideas circulating in Johnson as complements to the Christian moralist positions that have held sway in Johnson studies for so many years.

Subject Area

British and Irish literature

Recommended Citation

Chappell, Michael J, "Samuel Johnson and community" (1999). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI9941913.