Leo Damrosch, The Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends who Shaped an Age (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2019), 488 pp., $30.00.
Upon receiving Leo Damrosch's engaging new book, The Club, I hauled my dusty copy of Samuel Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language off the shelf. I say "haul" because my facsimile of the original 1755 edition weighs more than twelve pounds: heavy going for lifting though not for reading. I wanted to see how Johnson defined the word "club" since the focal point of Damrosch's collection of eighteenth-century London lives and ideas is a club. And not just any club, but the Club--the small circle of friends organized by the great lexicographer and Sir Joshua Reynolds, the foremost English portrait artist of the time.
A club, according to Johnson's Dictionary, is "[a]n assembly of good fellows, meeting under certain conditions." Johnson's own club certainly lived up to his definition, which the author gets around to quoting after a hundred pages or so. The concept of the Club had been Sir Joshua's. It was to be a group made up of "convivial and interesting friends who would spend an evening together once a week." The co-founders decided, Damrosch tells us,
...that nine members would be a good number--enough to keep conversation lively and wide-ranging, even when not everyone was able to attend. Another member said later that the intention was to choose people so agreeable 'that if only two of these chanced to meet for the evening, they should be able to entertain each other.' They chose a Latin motto for the club, esto perpetua, 'Let it be perpetual.' So it has. Allowing for dormant intervals, the Club has "remained in being right down to the present day, under the name of the London Literary Society" and including in its ranks such latter-day nineteenth- and twentieth-century luminaries as Sir Walter Scott, Thomas Babington Macaulay, William Ewart Gladstone, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Matthew Arnold, Rudyard Kipling, Neville Chamberlain, Lord Kenneth Clark, T.S. Eliot, Max Beerbohm and Prime Minister Harold Macmillan.
All of which is pretty impressive, but not nearly so much so as the list of eighteenth-century members that, besides Reynolds and Johnson, included: poet/playwright/novelist Oliver Goldsmith; parliamentary orator and foremost political essayist of his time, Edmund Burke; the leading actor and theatrical manager of the period; David Garrick, who introduced a more natural acting style and launched a popular Shakespeare revival; Adam Smith, the father of modern economics; and Edward Gibbon, member of parliament and author of one of the greatest historical works of all time--his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Nor should we omit James Boswell, failed barrister but inspired biographer, and the compulsive diarist thanks to whom modern readers can share much of the wit, wisdom and repartee that sparkled and flowed at the Club's weekly meetings, held at the Turk's Head Tavern on Gerrard Street near the Strand in its first twenty years and afterwards carried on at other London hostelries.
There had, of course, been earlier London clubs. Some of them survive today. White's, founded in the late seventeenth century, was a Tory stronghold with a large aristocratic contingent. As director of speech-writing for President Ronald Reagan, I was pleased to see that this had not changed when I dined there. One of the first members my host introduced me to was the chap then in charge of writing speeches for the heir to the throne, Charles, Prince of Wales. A little younger than White's, Brooks' and Boodle's were both eighteenth-century spinoffs, with a heavy representation of Whig rather than Tory grandees. But these flush establishments, mainly reserved for the titled and the very wealthy, were best known for the quality of their wine cellars and the high stakes at their gaming tables. By contrast, Johnson's outfit had a membership based on merit, intelligence and the then new but now familiar Johnsonian concept of "clubability"--of cultivation, wit, esprit and conviviality--that could contribute to the quality of its conversations.
The greatest talker of them all was Johnson himself, the power of whose words was such that it could overcome a physical presence that can only be described as wretched. On initially meeting the hulking, twitching Johnson, the visitor's sense of sight and smell was likely to kick in almost immediately. The first time Boswell...