The best minds of their generation: the story of “the Club”

Dr Johnson and Boswell recruited the age’s most original thinkers and turned conversation into an art form.

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“The Club”, as the members called it, as if there were no other, first met in 1764 at the Turk’s Head Tavern, off the Strand. It was founded to help Samuel Johnson get out of his own head, and he was the Club’s first and foremost conversational heavyweight. But its membership within his lifetime included three other great writers (James Boswell, Richard Sheridan and Oliver Goldsmith), a great painter (Joshua Reynolds), a great historian (Edward Gibbon), a great political economist (Adam Smith), a great orator and polemicist (Edmund Burke), a great leader (Charles James Fox), a great actor-manager (David Garrick) and a great scientist (Joseph Banks). Johnson exaggerated only slightly when he declared every branch of knowledge represented.

In 2019, a book about dead white men enjoying a members-only institution may not sound promising, but Leo Damrosch weaves in a careful sub-narrative about the women – such as Reynolds’s sister Frances and Sheridan’s wife Elizabeth – whose creative careers were snuffed out by the clubmen in order to ease their own progress. Only Johnson did not participate in this unthinking sexism. 

Damrosch claims that “the Club is the virtual hero of this story”, but his book is predominantly the cradle-to-grave biographies of Boswell and Johnson, whom he calls the Club’s “Odd Couple”. As a literary biographer, Damrosch is at his best on his subjects’ mental health: Johnson’s “probable” OCD and his anguished fear of eternal damnation due to his “insane thoughts of shackles and handcuffs” (as confessed, in Latin, to his diary); or Boswell’s self-described “desperate melancholy”, diagnosed here as one phase of bipolar disorder. Before the advent of modern psychoanalysis or pharmaceuticals, the friendships of the “conversible world” were vital self-help remedies. Johnson therefore accepted Reynolds’s prescription of more clubbing with friends as a way to avoid the fate he attributed to Jonathan Swift in his short biography of the Irishman: a descent, through isolation, into embittered madness.

Boswell, Johnson and their friends regarded conversation as its own art form, which stimulated ideas, rather as Garrick reanimated London theatre by making actors rehearse in ensemble for the first time. One friend complimented Boswell for bringing out his best self (“you are more chemical to me than anybody”), while Edmund Burke appreciated a good debate with Johnson because “he that wrestles with us strengthens our nerves and sharpens our skill”. But Adam Smith, a later member, whom Johnson never liked, said little at the Club because, as Damrosch astutely surmises, “Smith knew he had original things to say, and wanted to say them persuasively in print, not in social settings where they could be misunderstood or co-opted by others.” It can’t have helped that Boswell, after joining in 1773, was recording many of its private conversations for publication.

Additional motives for founding the Club are not made clear. Similarly, Damrosch does not look back to the Club’s models, even though Johnson and Edmund Malone were fascinated by the late Stuart era literary clubs.

As early as 1766 Johnson said he was not “over diligent” in attending meetings and one member’s declaration that the criteria for joining should be that, if only two members were present, “they should be able to entertain each other” proved sadly relevant on at least two occasions when that principle would have been tested. To avoid this, the Club expanded in 1774 and 1778. Ironically, given its original sanity-preserving aim, Johnson accused Reynolds of opening “an Asylum” with the new admissions, and, when Goldsmith advocated expansion because “we have travelled over one another’s minds”, Johnson replied: “Sir, you have not travelled over my mind, I promise you.”

Johnson hated that Reynolds started including clergymen, conservative Whigs and grandees interested in social cachet rather than conversation. They made it, Johnson regretted, “a mere miscellaneous collection of conspicuous men”. He preferred to spend time with his own household’s peevish, uneducated and uncouth miscellany, who were like a living rebuke to clubbable elitism: several elderly women, an ex-slave, the occasional rescued prostitute. Less endearingly, Johnson’s pride was probably offended by newer members who did not always defer to him; he therefore set up the Essex Head Club of loyal listeners in 1783, a year before his death.

Politics also divided the Club from the late 1770s onwards, with an extraordinary meeting in 1780 to heal rifts over the fate of the American colonies, and an awkward meeting after the execution of Louis XVI, where Fox’s presence caused all conversation to fizzle out. In contrast to clubs such as the Select Society in Edinburgh or the Lunar Society in Birmingham, the Club had no other clear collective endeavour with which to divert itself. The members rarely acted in unison – on one occasion, randomly, to get an Italian acquitted after he stabbed a mugger, and to fund monuments to Johnson and Reynolds after their deaths. Concrete evidence of intellectual cross-fertilisation, such as Burke’s “borrowing” of ideas from Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (1776), is also surprisingly sparse.

In a sense, Boswell’s Life of Johnson (1791), dedicated to Reynolds and written with Malone’s daily encouragement, was the Club’s single greatest monument. This fact makes Damrosch’s focus on Boswell more fitting, but as a specimen of group biography this book remains – like the Club itself – a collection full of breadth and brilliance, lacking cohesion. 

Ophelia Field’s books include “The Kit-Cat Club: Friends Who Imagined a Nation” (Harper Perennial)

The Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped an Age
Leo Damrosch
Yale University Press, 472pp, £20

This article appears in the 24 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit earthquake