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HISTORICAL AND BIOGRAPHICAL
THE IDLER was originally written by Dr. JOHNSON for a newspaper called "The Uni versal Chronicle, or Weekly Gazette," projected in the year 1758 by Mr. JOHN NEWBERY, Bookseller, whom Sir JOHN HAWKINS justly characterises as "a man of good understanding, and great integrity." He suggested the plan of many useful compilations for the young, or those who had more curiosity than leisure to read; and generally employed men of considerable abilities in such undertakings. Among the best of them may be mentioned, a collection of voyages, entitled "The World Displayed," to which Dr. JOHNSON wrote an historical introduction; and many now living may perhaps remember the pleasure they derived from Mr. NEWBERY's excellent little books, for "masters and misses," of some of which he was the reputed author. He died in the year 1776.
Dr. JOHNSON is said to have been allowed a share in the profits of the Universal Chronicle, for which he was to furnish a short essay on such subjects of a general or temporary kind as might suit the taste of newspaper readers, and distinguish this publication from its contemporaries. Sir JOHN HAWKINS assigns as a reason for Mr. NEWBERY'S wishing to have an ESSAY in his paper, that the occurrences during the intervals of its publication were not sufficient to fill its columns. If this was the case, it is a curious fact in the history of political intelligence. Those who now print weekly papers find it not only difficult but impossible to contain half of the articles, which have entertained other readers during the intervals of publication, and which, from the common impulses of domestic or public curiosity, their readers think they have a right to expect.
The Universal Chronicle appeared on Saturday, April 15th, 1758, containing the IDLER No. 1, and continued to be published on the same day, weekly, until April 5th, 1760, when the IDLER was concluded, and with it, if I am not mistaken, the Chronicle was dropped for want of encouragement.
These Essays which are very short, and were written with little effort, afford evident marks of the same depth of thought which predominates in the RAMBLER, although expressed with more ease and familiarity of style, and more general gaiety of manner. In his characteristic correspondence also, the Author unbends with considerable
felicity, as in the first letter from Betty Broom* in No. 26, and where he catches himself relapsing into his more solemn periods, he immediately descends to common language, as in the beginning of the second letter from that correspondent in No. 29.
As he wrote in a newspaper, by the success of which he expected to profit, he sometimes forgot the exclusive business of the moral Essayist, meddled with the occasional politics of the day, and no doubt gratified many of his readers, by censuring the conductors of state affairs, with whom he appears to have been out of humour. Nos. 5, 8, and part of 39, are admirable effusions of the splenetic kind. In the supposititious French account of the capture of Louisburg in No. 20, he expresses some sentiments on the rights of conquest on Indian territory, which have often been repeated and expanded by those who are disaffected to the English empire in the Eastern world; but still at this time, whatever he might think of the weight of his own sentiments, he had not a very exalted opinion of the importance of newspaper opposition or information, and No. 7 is one instance of the ridicule with which he viewed the labours of his fellow-journalists.
These political allusions, however, are deviations from the general plan, which will be pardoned when we contemplate the general merit of the
"Mrs. GARDINER was very zealous for the support of the Ladies' Charity School, in the parish of St. Sepulchre, It is confined to females, and, I am told, it afforded a hint for the story of Betty Broom in the IDLER." Boswell's Life of Johnson, Vol. 4, p. 261. Edit. 5th, Mrs. Gardiner died in 1789.
IDLER. The character he assumed was in some degree, and by his own confession derived from his personal habits. In representing idleness in various lights, but particularly with a view to the labours of the student, he evidently drew from sources with which he was well acquainted. "He describes the miseries of idleness," says his Biographer," with the lively sensations of one who has felt them, and in his private memorandums while engaged in it, we find," this year I hope to learn diligence." The character of Sober in No. 31, is evidently his own portrait, and much of the Journal in No. 67, although written by his friend Mr. LANGTON, belongs to him. In his Life we find how frequently he was disturbed from such placid employment as "reading the Scriptures, with Grotius."
As papers of equal excellence with those in the RAMBLER, Mr. BOSWELL has selected Nos. 14, 24, 41, 43, 51, 52, 58, 89, and 103, to which a few others may with the same justice be added. But the chief excellence of the IDLER is, the dry and grave humour with which public or private folly is exposed. Of this we have an instance, out of many that might be mentioned, in No. 6 on a lady's wonderful performance on horseback. This was founded on a real incident. A young lady laid a wager, that she should ride a thousand miles in a thousand hours. She was allowed six weeks, but performed the feat within a month," lying by," as the account states, only two days at Newmarket. "At her coming in, the country people strewed flowers in her way, and made great rejoicings on the occasion."* This
* London Chronicle, May 6, 1758.
news arrived in London May 6th, and JOHNSON instantly seized so fertile a topic of ridicule.
The whimsical characters or oddities in this work are numerous and original, and exhibit our > author as excelling in genuine humour, a talent which some, it is impossible to say why, have been inclined to deny him. His right however to the full honours of that species of wit, will be decidedly established, if almost any characters drawn by former ESSAYISTS are brought into comparison with Tom Tempest and Jack Sneaker in No. 10, Ned Drugget in No. 16, Jack Whirler in No. 19, Dick Linger in No. 21, Mrs. Plenty in No. 35, the City Wit in No. 47, Will Marvel in No. 49, Sophron in No. 57, Dick Minim in Nos. 60 and 61, Dick Shifter in No. 71, the Club in No. 78 and 83, and the Good Sort of Woman in No. 100. These are sketches, indeed, but they are the sketches of a master, with an eye observant of real life and manners, and catching the ridiculous in every situation.
In these little Essays, our author also sometimes animadverted on the publications as well as on the incidents of the times. Petvin's "Letters concerning mind," afforded him an opportunity of ridiculing the terrific diction, the intention of which is to frighten and amaze and its natural effect to drive away the reader. The passage, he quotes, is sufficiently ludicrous without any illustration.
When the sequel to Lord CLARENDON's History was published, the difficulties through which that work struggled into light, led our author's mind to consider the common fate of posthumous