For a time in the late 18th century, a group of men met weekly in a London pub for dinner and conversation. In and of itself, this may seem unremarkable. What is remarkable is that the group included among its members some of the most extraordinary individuals of the age – or indeed, of any age. The group included Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, Edmund Burke, Edward Gibbon, and Adam Smith; arguably, the greatest British critic, biographer, political philosopher, historian, and economist of all time. Others in the group included others equally famous at the time, including the painter Joshua Reynolds, the playwrights Richard Sheridan and Oliver Goldsmith, and David Garrick, the greatest actor of the century. The group called itself The Literary Club, but it came to be known simply as The Club. Harvard University Literature Professor Leo Damrosch tells the group’s fascinating story in his excellent and entertaining book, The Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped an Age.
The origins of The Club go back to 1764. The painter Joshua Reynolds, sensing that his friend Samuel Johnson was deep in the depths of despond and hoping to pull him out of it, suggested that they get together with friends in a pub for dinner, drinks, and conversation. Reynolds, perhaps familiar with Johnson’s view that “a tavern chair is the throne of human felicity,” had correctly calculated what might help Johnson recover his equilibrium. Reynolds invited several friends to meet in a reserved room on the second floor of the Turk’s Head Tavern, on Garrard Street, just off of The Strand. The initial meeting soon became an every-Friday-night affair that often went into the small hours of the morning.
At these gatherings, the first order of business was to order a dinner, likely involving beef, mutton, pork or lamb, or maybe some poultry, or perhaps some seafood – turbot, smelts, or cod. With the meal, the guests enjoyed wine, and following the meal, stronger spirits. But while all of the members enjoyed the food and drinks, The Club existed for conversation. Nor was this merely a chit-chat among friends. As Damrosch notes, the Club’s members were “talking for victory.” They were there to “match wits” – and to do so with some of the greatest minds of the age. The dramatist Oliver Goldsmith later said that “There is no arguing with Johnson, for if his pistol misfires, he knocks you down with the butt of it.” However, the argumentation had limits – John Hawkins, one of the group’s original members, left The Club after he was ostracized for verbally abusing Burke. (Johnson later said of Hawkins that he is “an unclubbable man.”)
What is most interesting to me about the group’s early membership is that except for Johnson and Reynolds, none of the early members had a public reputation at the time. Adam Smith would go on to write The Wealth of Nations only years later. Edward Gibbon would publish the first volume of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire only after he became a member. Edmund Burke was not yet even in parliament at the time he became a member, and he would not write his famous commentary on the French Revolution for nearly thirty years.
As extraordinary as The Club was, we would know little about it if James Boswell had not been a member. Boswell would of course go on to write his famous Life of Johnson, but that was not until years later, after Johnson’s death in 1784. Boswell was not in fact among The Club’s original members. He didn’t get in until 1773, as it turned out. Damrosch writes that the Club members “liked him well enough” but they thought of him as a “lightweight whose only merit was his devotion to Johnson.” But even if the others only reluctantly made Boswell a member, it is to Boswell we must give our thanks for allowing us to have a sense of the substance of the proceedings at The Club’s meetings.
A host of topics might be discussed at the Club’s meetings, ranging from as serious of a topic as the issue of emigration to the colonies or the value of history reading, to as trivial a subject as the worth of card playing. What the members valued was “lively exchange of experiences and opinions and ideas” and required that new members consist of people “who could express themselves in compelling language.” First and foremost among the distinguished members was Johnson himself; Boswell recorded many of Johnson’s epigrams from discussions at The Turk’s Head Tavern dinners.
For example, Boswell captures Johnson “waxing philosophical” (as Damrosch put it) about a prized dog that reportedly sold for a thousand guineas; Burke had offered the opinion that no animal could be worth that much, to which Johnson responded “Sir, it is not the worth of the thing, but of the skill in forming it which is so highly estimated. Everything that enlarges the sphere of human powers, that can show man he can do what he thought he could not do, is valuable. The first man to balance a straw upon his nose; [a famous equestrian] who rode upon three horses at a time; in short, all men deserved the applause of mankind, not on account of the use of what they did, but of the dexterity which they exhibited.”
As Damrosch notes in his book, the members’ time together represented only a small part of their lives. What he does in his book is to provide sketches of some of The Club’s most remarkable members. In separate chapters, he describes the life and work of some of the most noteworthy, including Reynolds, Burke, Smith, Gibbon, and Garrick. The sketches not only bring out how extraordinary these and others of The Club’s members were. They also highlight something perhaps even more extraordinary; almost all of them (except perhaps Boswell himself, who was the son of a Scottish Laird) were self-made men. Most of them, including Johnson himself, were of very humble origins.
At the center of The Club’s life was Boswell and Johnson’s remarkable friendship. They were more than thirty years apart in age; Boswell was only 23 and Johnson was already a famous man in his fifties when they first met. Johnson was a man of deeply religious feeling; Boswell, in the spirit of the age, was an open skeptic. Except perhaps with respect to language itself, Johnson was a man of restraint; Boswell was sexually incontinent in ways that were, in fact, ultimately deeply dangerous to his health. (If you have any interest in the sexual environment in London in the 1760s, you will find Boswell’s London Journal endlessly fascinating.) Yet out of these seemingly unpromising differences, a genuine friendship arose.
My favorite part of Damrosch’s book is his chapter describing the extended trip that Boswell and Johnson took together to the Scottish Highlands and the Hebrides in 1773. Both men were to publish written accounts of their travels, but their accounts differed; Johnson’s version was in the form of a sort of social anthropology concerning the people they encountered, while Boswell’s account, characteristically, consisted of his record of Johnson’s conversations with the people they met and with each other. The two men were together on the journey for about one hundred consecutive days, which Damrosch calculates as representing nearly a quarter of all the time the two men spent together. Johnson was in his 60s at the time, Boswell in his 30s, and yet they managed to come away from their trip with a deeper friendship and greater mutual respect.
As the years went by, The Club changed. It originally had only nine members, but it grew to 16 in 1773 and to 21 by late 1775 (eleven years after The Club’s inaugural meeting). By 1787 the number rose to 35. As the membership grew, Johnson began to drift away. Damrosch reports that as the membership increased, Johnson “felt strongly that the whole point of The Club had been forgotten; he attended only occasionally.” Other changes followed. The original owners of The Turk’s Head Tavern died, and so the Club moved its meeting place to Prince’s in Sackville Street, in Piccadilly.
Johnson died in 1784, and Boswell followed just eleven years later. Boswell’s life in his final years is rather a sad tale; the conviviality that was such a part of his friendship with Johnson and of his life in The Club was ill-suited to the life of Scottish barrister, and, eventually, as a Scottish Laird. Boswell always enjoyed strong drink, but in his later years it began to consume him, and the picture of a drunken Boswell stumbling around London is a sad one.
Johnson and Boswell had left the scene, but remarkably, The Club continued to exist. Indeed, The Club, known in its current iteration as The London Literary Society, continues to meet. Over the years, many other famous individuals have been members, including Walter Scott, William Ewart Gladstone, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Rudyard Kipling, T.S. Eliot, and Harold Macmillan. With all of these distinguished names, it is easy to overlook those whose names do not appear: for example, Dickens, Thackery, Trollope, and Hardy. And of course, no George Eliot or Virginia Wolff – membership in The Club has always been limited to men. Another prominent name not listed on the membership rolls is Winston Churchill, who wanted to join but was considered “too controversial,” so Churchill formed his own club, known as The Other Club, which also still exists and meets at the Savoy Hotel when Parliament is in session.
As I stated when I launched this Sunday Arts series, part of my motivation in undertaking this project was to make something from the extensive reading I have been doing to keep myself sane during the pandemic. I have indeed read many books over the last 18 months, but I think of all the books I read during the period, Damrosch’s book about The Club is the one I enjoyed the most. In fact, re-reading the book for purposes of writing this blog post was as enjoyable and rewarding an experience as I have ever had in reading a book for the second time.
Damrosch’s book is a compelling summary of the age, and it is also an explanatory guide to how the times produced so many men of genius and accomplishment – and not only were they men of genius, but they all knew each other and enjoyed each other’s company. It is this last point that stays with me the most – that is, that they enjoyed each other’s company; that is the kind of thing that of course we all miss in this age of COVID. But it is not just that they socialized with each other; they truly did enjoy being together and exchanging ideas. It is a kind of socializing that has probably been slowly disappearing since The Club first met, but whose disappearance has been radically accelerated by the atomizing age in which we now live, each in our own car, in our own houses, looking at our own TVs and telephones. Nowhere is there time, space, or opportunity for us to, say, wax philosophical about a dog that sold for a thousand guineas. And more’s the pity, I say.
Anyway, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Get yourself a copy and make some space in your life to read it. You will be enriched by doing so.