The progress on the Samuel Johnson correspondence digitization project continues, with another 146 letters to 32 different correspondents now available. This batch includes such notables as Bennet Langton, Edmond Malone, Elizabeth Robinson Montagu, Hannah More, and Thomas Percy. But there are two highlights that I am especially eager to point out. One is a group of 34 letters from Johnson to Hester Maria Thrale (later the Viscountess Keith), the daughter of Mrs. Piozzi, and better known as “Queeney”. Johnson’s fond relationship with her was memorably dramatized in Beryl Bainbridge’s novel According to Queeney.
The other concerns the work of James Macpherson, who claimed to have discovered and translated a number of epic poems by Ossian, a third-century Gaelic bard. Johnson was extremely skeptical of the poems’ authenticity, and said as much in his Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland. Macpherson wrote to Johnson’s publisher demanding that this passage be stricken. Johnson wrote to Macpherson refusing to back down:
I received your foolish and impudent note. Whatever insult is offered me I will do my best to repel, and what I cannot do for myself, the law will do for me. I will not desist from detecting what I think is a cheat, from any fear of the menaces of a Ruffian.
Johnson was right to be skeptical; although Macpherson had drawn upon some genuine sources, the bulk of his “Ossianic” poetry was his own fabrication.