Archive for the 'John Overholt' Category

Regsitration is open!

We’ve just updated the page for our upcoming symposium Johnson At 300 with the registration form, schedule of events, and hotel information. We’ve got an outstanding lineup of participants, and of course we’ll be opening the first exhibition of the Hyde Collection since it arrived at Houghton. I hope you can join us.

Published in:John Overholt |on May 5th, 2009 |Comments Off on Regsitration is open!

Fiction is easier than discernment

Defamation is sufficiently copious. The general lampooner of mankind may find long exercise for his zeal or wit, in the defects of nature, the vexations of life, the follies of opinion, and the corruptions of practice. But fiction is easier than discernment; and most of these writers spare themselves the labour of inquiry, and exhaust their virulence upon imaginary crimes, which, as they never existed, can never be amended.
Samuel Johnson, The Idler, no. 45.

This week’s episode of On The Media contained an interview with Eric Burns, author of All the News Unfit to Print: How Things Were… And How They Were Reported. This blog isn’t the place for modern political issues, so I’ll steer clear of my skepticism about his defense of McCarthyism. But I cannot allow his highly unconventional (to put it politely) description of Johnson’s Debates in the Senate of Lilliput to go unchallenged. In the interview, Burns says that Johnson was hired in 1720 by Gentleman’s Quarterly to cover the debates of Parliament. In fact, GQ wouldn’t exist for another 200 years; it was Gentleman’s Magazine that Johnson worked for. And he was 11 years old in 1720; he started writing the debates in 1740. I suspect these are both simple slips of the tongue, and rendered correctly in the book, but it doesn’t exactly inspire me with confidence in his grasp of the issues.

Moving on to the substance of the matter, Burns charges that Johnson was assigned the job of Parliament beat reporter, but was too lazy to attend the debates, and so simply made them up. In his view, because of Johnson’s sloth and mendacity we have no real historical record of the period.

The reality is considerably different. The press was in fact barred from reporting Parliamentary debates at this time, so Johnson’s reports were by necessity wrapped in a layer of fiction: from the title, reflecting the conceit that they were written by Lemuel Gulliver’s grandson, to the anagrammed and otherwise distorted names of the speakers. Johnson would have been expelled or worse if he’d simply sat in the gallery taking notes, so instead he worked at home, composing the speeches based on smuggled out reports of who spoke and on what issues. Any gap in the historical record is Parliament’s doing, not Johnson’s. Furthermore, as Robert Folkenflik points out in the Cambridge Companion to Samuel Johnson, the reports are full of cues to readers that they are not literal transcriptions of the speeches; phrases like “spoke in this effect” or “spoke to this purpose” introduce many of the speeches.

Painting Johnson as the Stephen Glass of the 18th century is ahistorical grandstanding, and doesn’t stand up to any meaningful encounter with the facts.

(Opinions expressed are of course my own, and not Harvard’s.)

Debates in the Senate of Lilliput

Debates in the Senate of Lilliput

Published in:John Overholt |on May 4th, 2009 |Comments Off on Fiction is easier than discernment


Monday’s edition of the NPR show “On Point” (based right here in Boston at WBUR) devoted an hour to Samuel Johnson, with guest Jeffrey Meyers, author of the new biography Samuel Johnson: The Struggle. You can listen to the show here.

Published in:John Overholt |on January 7th, 2009 |Comments Off on WSAM

ANNIVERSARY: A day celebrated as it returns in the course of the year.

Kathryn James, my colleague at the Beinecke Library at Yale, has come up with such a wonderful idea to celebrate Samuel Johnson’s 300th birthday that I’m quite jealous I didn’t think of it myself. Every day in 2009, the new blog Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary will be posting a definition scanned from a unique copy of the Dictionary in the Beinecke’s collections.

Over the longer term, the even more exciting news is that the Beinecke will be scanning their James Boswell papers, and making them available online. I haven’t seen a formal announcement yet, but it looks like most of it is already available.

Published in:John Overholt |on January 3rd, 2009 |Comments Off on ANNIVERSARY: A day celebrated as it returns in the course of the year.

When Samuel met Eustace

There’s a lengthy review of several new Johnson-related books written by Adam Gopnik in this week’s New Yorker, and two of those books drew on the Hyde Collection for some of their illustrations. One is Peter Martin’s Samuel Johnson: A Biography (published right here at Harvard University Press). The other is Ian McIntyre’s Hester: The Remarkable Life of Dr. Johnson’s “Dear Mistress”, (only out in the UK at present) a biography of Hester Thrale Piozzi.

More reviews of Samuel Johnson can be found here and here. More reviews of Hester are here and here.

Published in:John Overholt |on December 3rd, 2008 |Comments Off on When Samuel met Eustace

Party like it’s 1709

The call for papers for our upcoming symposium “Johnson at 300” has now been posted at the symposium’s web page. Themes for many of the sessions have already been selected, and those interested should submit an abstract (300 words) or completed papers by email to the session chair (indicated in parentheses after each session) by January 15, 2009.

There is space for two or three additional sessions and proposals are now being accepted. Session proposals should include session title and a list of participants (chair and three speakers). Proposals should be sent to Thomas A. Horrocks ( by January 15, 2009.

The symposium will be held August 27-29, 2009, and will coincide with the opening of a comprehensive exhibition of highlights from the Hyde Collection (curated by yours truly).

Published in:John Overholt |on September 22nd, 2008 |Comments Off on Party like it’s 1709

Keep those cards and letters coming!

I’m very pleased to announce a major milestone in our project to digitize our Samuel Johnson correspondence. All 750 Johnson letters in MS Hyde 1 have now been completed and made accessible to the scholarly community. This last section includes a number of important Johnson correspondents, including his stepdaughter Lucy Porter, his friends Henry Thrale and Sir Joshua Reynolds, and the publisher William Strahan.

By far the largest single block, however, are the 232 letters from Johnson to Hester Thrale Piozzi, many of which she annotated in the course of producing her book Letters to and from the late Samuel Johnson, LL.D. Of particular interest is Johnson’s anguished letter on learning of her marriage to Gabriele Piozzi, which opens “If I interpret your letter right, you are ignominiously married, if it is yet undone, let us once talk together. If you have abandoned your children and your religion, God forgive your wickedness; if you have forfeited your fame and your country, may your folly do you no further mischief.” And yet, written sideways in the margin, an attempt at reconciliation: “I will come down if you permit it.”

As if all this weren’t news enough to gladden the heart of any Johnsonian, I can also announce that we’ve digitized letters to Johnson from several of his most important correspondents: James Boswell (1 letter), Charles Burney (2 letters), David Garrick (1 letter), Mrs. Piozzi (7 letters, including her reply to the Johnson letter quoted above), and Queeney Thrale (1 letter).

Thanks to the breathtaking efficiency of my colleague Alison Harris, the project is ahead of schedule, and we’re hoping to expand it to include several groups of Johnson letters in other Houghton collections, so stayed tuned for further updates.

Published in:John Overholt |on March 25th, 2008 |Comments Off on Keep those cards and letters coming!

More Johnson correspondence

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.

Published in:John Overholt |on February 15th, 2008 |Comments Off on More Johnson correspondence

Your most humble servant

The Hyde Collection contains half of the surviving letters of Samuel Johnson (in fact the definitive edition of Johnson’s correspondence, edited by Bruce Redford and published by Princeton University Press in 1992, was known as “the Hyde Edition”). I’m very pleased to announce that thanks to the hard work of my colleagues Alison Harris and Susan Pyzynski, the first 60 folders (of 132) of the collection have been digitized in high-resolution color scans. This group includes letters from Johnson to Charles Burney, Thomas Cadell, Edward Cave, David Garrick, and John Hawkesworth, as well as the only surviving letter from Johnson to his wife Elizabeth. You’ll also see what surely must be the most valuable dinner invitation in the whole of Houghton Library.

The easiest way to get to the scans is to go to the finding aid for MS Hyde 1, and then look for the “Click for color digital facsimile” link under each letter. I’ll be sure to let you know as progress on the digitization project continues. Email me at  overholt at if you have any feedback on using the collection.

Published in:John Overholt |on January 23rd, 2008 |Comments Off on Your most humble servant

The Luminous Historian, Part III

Remember, this week is your last chance to see the exhibit. We’ll be closed after Friday until the New Year, when I have to take it down.

The first volume of the Decline and Fall was originally planned for a run of 500 copies, but halfway through printing advance demand was such that this was increased to 1,000. Nevertheless, the entire edition sold out within a fortnight, necessitating a second edition of 1,500 copies. This too sold briskly, and the work was in its fourth edition by 1781, notwithstanding the appearance of a cheaper Dublin piracy. This receipt for the profits from the first two editions of the first volume is signed by Gibbon and the publisher, Thomas Cadell.

Edward Gibbon Decline and Fall receipt

Gibbon was just ten years old when his mother died, after which he was largely raised by his aunt, Catherine Porten. Some sense of the bond between them can be gleaned from the gratitude that comes through in his presentation inscription on this volume, despite its 18th century formality.

Eward Gibbon inscription to Catherine Porten

Published in:John Overholt |on December 19th, 2007 |Comments Off on The Luminous Historian, Part III

The Luminous Historian, Part II

As I mentioned last time, Edward Gibbon had a very large personal library, which he kept track of with a then very modern device: the card catalog. Though most of the catalog now resides in the British Library, we’re fortunate enough to have one of his cards which, like the majority of them, is written on the blank back of a playing card, in this case an ace of diamonds. In the exhibit, I’ve propped it up in front of a mirror so that visitors can see both sides of the card.

Edward Gibbon catalog card

In 1774, Gibbon was elected to The Club (also known as The Literary Club) a group founded by Sir Joshua Reynolds and consisting initially of Samuel Johnson’s circle of friends, but eventually expanding to include most of the great minds of the period. Gibbon was apparently admitted over the objections of James Boswell, who disliked him intensely. Gibbon later served as president of The Club, and in that capacity sent this letter to the great Shakespearean scholar Edmond Malone, informing him of his admission.

Edward Gibbon welcomes Edmund Malone to The Club

One more post still to come, hopefully before the exhibit ends!

Published in:John Overholt |on December 2nd, 2007 |Comments Off on The Luminous Historian, Part II

“Luminous Historian” makes the news!

Ken Gewertz of the Harvard University Gazette has written a very nice article about my Edward Gibbon exhibit which is now available online. Sadly you’ll have to locate a print copy to see the picture of me, or more specifically, my left hand and a bit of my favorite tie.

Published in:John Overholt |on November 15th, 2007 |Comments Off on “Luminous Historian” makes the news!

The Luminous Historian, Part I

This week I put up my first exhibit as Assistant Curator: “Edward Gibbon: The Luminous Historian”. Christopher Jones, a professor in the Classics Department is teaching a course this semester on Gibbon, the renowned author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. You’ll have to stop by Houghton to see the full exhibit, which will be up until December 22nd, but I thought I’d share a few highlights here.

Gibbon was a passionate book collector (in fact he once compared his library to a seraglio) but it was more than just a hobby: his tremendous collection of original sources in Roman history made the Decline and Fall possible. Houghton owns several books from Gibbon’s library, but I chose to show his copy of Taylor’s Elements of the Civil Law because it bears not only his simple booklabel, but also his less common armorial bookplate.

Edward Gibbon Booklabel

Edward Gibbon Bookplate

Perhaps the best way to get a sense of the scale of Gibbon’s library is this bill from a master cabinet-maker named Bocion, who constructed the library in Gibbon’s house in Lausanne, Switzerland. This is just page one of three, and the total comes to over £700. As we’ll see in a later installment, that’s almost as much as Gibbon was paid for the first volume of the Decline and Fall.

Edward Gibbon Bocion Receipt

Stay tuned for more from this exhibit.

Published in:John Overholt |on November 4th, 2007 |Comments Off on The Luminous Historian, Part I

Going once, going twice, sold!

Bloomsbury auction house is selling this amazing Rowlandson watercolor of an early 19th-century book auction on 10/24. Anybody got $40,000-60,000 to lend me?

Published in:John Overholt |on October 22nd, 2007 |Comments Off on Going once, going twice, sold!

Discoveries in the back stacks, Part II

Clearly the second-greatest work of literature whose title starts “Boswell’s Life of …”

Boswell's Life of Boswell

Published in:John Overholt |on October 8th, 2007 |Comments Off on Discoveries in the back stacks, Part II