The Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped an Age

The Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped an Age

Prize-winning biographer Leo Damrosch tells the story of “the Club,” a group of extraordinary writers, artists, and thinkers who gathered weekly at a London tavern In 1763, the painter Joshua Reynolds proposed to his friend Samuel Johnson that they invite a few friends to join them every Friday at the Turk’s Head Tavern in London to dine, drink, and talk until midnight. Ev...

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Title:The Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped an Age
Author:Leo Damrosch
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The Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped an Age Reviews

  • Brian

    In the second half of the eighteenth century a remarkable group of men met weekly in the Turk’s Head Tavern in London. Known simply as The Club, the group included Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, Joshua Reynolds, Edmund Burke, Oliver Goldsmith, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Adam Smith and Edward Gibbon.

    This book traces the fortunes of those men as well as some of the talented women who were their friends and supporters like the writers Fanny Burney, Hannah Moore, and Charlotte Lennox, and the woman

    In the second half of the eighteenth century a remarkable group of men met weekly in the Turk’s Head Tavern in London. Known simply as The Club, the group included Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, Joshua Reynolds, Edmund Burke, Oliver Goldsmith, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Adam Smith and Edward Gibbon.

    This book traces the fortunes of those men as well as some of the talented women who were their friends and supporters like the writers Fanny Burney, Hannah Moore, and Charlotte Lennox, and the woman on whom Johnson came to depend more than anyone else, Hester Thrale.

    Leo Damrosch is the Ernest Bernbaum Professor of Literature Emeritus at Harvard University but this is not a book for a closeted academic readership. With an eye for the telling detail and the emblematic anecdote, Damrosch brings the world of eighteenth century literary London vividly to life. It's a world populated by brilliant but flawed individuals beset by all the difficulties of class, sex, age, religion, and health, whose impact upon society is still felt today, and the author succeeds in making them wonderfully recognisable

    Compelling reading for the intellectually curious, The Club is entertaining, vividly drawn and often genuinely moving.

  • Brian Willis

    This book is a vital survey of the intellectual and literary circle of luminaries who came to intersect their interests in an informal meeting called "the Club" at a local tavern called the Mitre. Ostensibly, it also spotlights many of the socio-cultural personas of the late 18th century in Britain: Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, David Garrick, Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, Joshua Reynolds, and Edward Gibbon.

    Alongside his previous 2 books, a biography of Jonathan Swift and an artistic biography of W

    This book is a vital survey of the intellectual and literary circle of luminaries who came to intersect their interests in an informal meeting called "the Club" at a local tavern called the Mitre. Ostensibly, it also spotlights many of the socio-cultural personas of the late 18th century in Britain: Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, David Garrick, Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, Joshua Reynolds, and Edward Gibbon.

    Alongside his previous 2 books, a biography of Jonathan Swift and an artistic biography of William Blake, Leo Damrosch is on a roll. This is a book that certainly fills a niche, enlarging and expanding the spotlight that usually falls on only one of these leading lights of the age. The book does focus more heavily on Johnson and Boswell, but without marginalizing the other subjects. One reviewer complained that Adam Smith only receives 8 pages but it is not an Adam Smith bio; this book is an intellectual biography and at that it succeeds marvelously. Required reading for students and enthusiasts of the 1760s-1800s.

  • Mandy

    The Club was a dining and drinking society founded in 1763 which met every Friday at the Turk’s Head Tavern in London. Among its members were many of the greatest intellects of the time, from Samuel Johnson to Adam Smith, Joshua Reynolds to Edward Gibbon, Edmund Burke to David Garrick – they are all to be found in this wonderfully entertaining group biography. It’s an excellent introduction to late 18th century literary and intellectual life and a vivid depiction of the men who attended the Club

    The Club was a dining and drinking society founded in 1763 which met every Friday at the Turk’s Head Tavern in London. Among its members were many of the greatest intellects of the time, from Samuel Johnson to Adam Smith, Joshua Reynolds to Edward Gibbon, Edmund Burke to David Garrick – they are all to be found in this wonderfully entertaining group biography. It’s an excellent introduction to late 18th century literary and intellectual life and a vivid depiction of the men who attended the Club and their multifarious activities and achievements. As a portrait of London society at that particularly time it certainly brings the era and the people to life. Insightful, well-researched, with many illustrations to enhance the text, I found it a thoroughly enjoyable and illuminating read.

  • Fern Adams

    The Club was a group of polymaths who met in an inn once a week in the second half of the 1700s. Made up of actors, artists, intellectuals and writers, many of the members were people who remain well known to this day; Johnson, Boswell, Joshua Reynolds, Oliver Goldsmith, Edmund Burke and Adam Smith amongst others. I was expecting this book to be about the meetings themselves and what they entailed and discussed during these however rather it was a book of biographies of the members. Damrosch tak

    The Club was a group of polymaths who met in an inn once a week in the second half of the 1700s. Made up of actors, artists, intellectuals and writers, many of the members were people who remain well known to this day; Johnson, Boswell, Joshua Reynolds, Oliver Goldsmith, Edmund Burke and Adam Smith amongst others. I was expecting this book to be about the meetings themselves and what they entailed and discussed during these however rather it was a book of biographies of the members. Damrosch takes each club member and provides information on their lives, work and idiosyncrasies as well as giving the reader information on the social, cultural and political history of the time. The book uses a range of sources including the club members journals, work, letters, quotes and Johnson’s own definitions of words within the dictionary he compiled. Damrosch has researched well and places the sources, events and people themselves into context for the time thus providing an extra layer that biographies often miss out and lead to the misinterpretation of information. Furthermore the paintings, drawings and cartoons that are peppered throughout the book really help to give the reader a mental picture of both the club members and the historical setting.

    I found this a fascinating read. Damrosch is clearly a skilled biographer. He is able to present the information in a very readable and clear manner and while the book is fairly long it does not read so. While I would have preferred a bit more balance between the members of the club (there is a large focus on Johnson and Boswell) and mentions of Rousseau and Voltaire who were not part of the club take up far more page space than many of the members this nevertheless was incredibly insightful. A perfect read for people who have knowledge of the club members and want to find out more about them or equally know very little but would like to begin researching. A book I am sure I will reread.

    Thank you to Net Galley and Yale University Press for sending me an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

  • David

    An entertaining book for difficult times.

    It hits the middle overlapping region of the Venn diagram where the two circles are labelled “About an Interesting Group of Historical Figures” and “Not Depressing”.

    If you have only a vague idea who Johnson, Boswell, David Garrick, Edmund Burke, et al., were, the book might be easier going if you skim through the Wikipedia entries for the main characters first. Even the slightest previous acquaintance with these characters will be enough for you to dive

    An entertaining book for difficult times.

    It hits the middle overlapping region of the Venn diagram where the two circles are labelled “About an Interesting Group of Historical Figures” and “Not Depressing”.

    If you have only a vague idea who Johnson, Boswell, David Garrick, Edmund Burke, et al., were, the book might be easier going if you skim through the Wikipedia entries for the main characters first. Even the slightest previous acquaintance with these characters will be enough for you to dive right into this book. For my part, long-ago university lit courses on some members of this group were more than enough.

    “The Club” as it actually existed was not really a cohesive and consistent enough group to support a unified narrative by itself, so the book tends to go off on tangents based on the careers and personalities of its members. One narrative doesn't have too much to do with another, and the book doesn't really build to a unified theme. However, the individual characters are fascinating and their era is as well, and the writing is good, so I think the author should be given a pass on the unified theme issue.

    A completely ill-natured grump might point out that not only Johnson and Boswell, but also Goldsmith, Sheridan, and many of the others in “The Club” were some of the finest writers in the English language. If you wanted to read about them, you actually could read any one of a dozen or more great books written

    them – why read a popular history about them instead?

    Because sometimes – if you are an average person with limited reading time and the normal amount of distractions – original writings from this period are often filled with too many mystifying references to contemporary events and personalities to be enjoyable. If you have access to one of the few remaining high-quality bookstores or (somewhat more prevalent) university libraries, you may be able to take down competing editions of the authors in question and see which one has the best footnotes, but sadly most of us are not in this position.

    In my case, I got distracted looking at free public-domain books for direct Kindle download on evening and allowed myself to download a completely unfootnoted version of Boswell's travel book concerning a trip that he and Johnson took through Scotland. Boswell's book was full of commentary about contemporary personalities and also about a book that Johnson himself wrote on the very same topic many years before (which I had sadly not read). I gave up on the book a quarter of the way through.

    In this book, Chapter 14 covers the same period, and is an excellent way to understand and appreciate this episode if you lack the background knowledge of a scholar. It makes the trip fun to read about and calls Johnson's book on this trip “a pioneering essay in geography and sociology, pondering for example why mountain people often resist control from the outside, fragment into competing tribes or clans, and sustain endless feuds.” This sounds like it covers, at least in part, the same territory as contemporary historian and academic James C. Scott, particularly

    , only 200 years early. Could be interesting – I'll probably be satisfying my cheapskate reading fix by downloading the Johnson travel book soon.

    Thanks to

    and

    for a free electronic advance review copy of this book.

  • Mary Rose

    In this chapter on Edward Gibbon, Damrosch writes: "Many historians, even today, have been tempted to write as if they had a total understanding of what happened long ago. But the best historians have always known that readers learn much more from being taken behind the scenes, pondering the available evidence along with the author. Much of the time the evidence is far from conclusive, and then the historian's job is to help us evaluate it."

    In this book Leo Damrosch writes a history of the eight

    In this chapter on Edward Gibbon, Damrosch writes: "Many historians, even today, have been tempted to write as if they had a total understanding of what happened long ago. But the best historians have always known that readers learn much more from being taken behind the scenes, pondering the available evidence along with the author. Much of the time the evidence is far from conclusive, and then the historian's job is to help us evaluate it."

    In this book Leo Damrosch writes a history of the eighteenth century in England in which Samuel Johnson and John Boswell serve as the nexus of a larger spiderweb of intellectual friendships. It's one of those remarkable circumstances that lead to some of the most famous figures from the time (such as the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds, historian Edward Gibbons, politician Edmund Burke, economist Adam Smith, etc.) were all in rooms together. And getting drunk.

    Taking Damrosch's own thoughts about what makes a successful historian, I find myself overall pleased by his treatment of the available subject matter. Given the frankly staggering quantity of surviving materials (these people wrote an enormous amount, both in their published books, pamphlets, and articles and in their private journals and correspondences. In many cases, it is almost TOO MUCH information. Looking at you, Boswell.) He has filtered down the details of what could be book length biographies about the different club members into shorter, more digestible chapters that all dance around the twin Maypoles of Johnson and Boswell.

    This brings me to my first point about what I love about the way Damrosch writes. If he introduces a concept, say, Adam Smith's new economic theory, he succinctly clarifies 1. What the status quo was 2. What the theory is 3. What is new about the theory 4. Why that matters 5. What the long-term impact of the innovation was.

    This becomes increasingly more laudable in my opinion when he does this for relatively minor instances. He fleshes out the world of the 18th century by telling us not just what happened but how it happened, why it happened, and (most importantly for me) how this was perceived. Not enough historians keep in mind that not all of their readers are as steeped in the milieu of their subject matter as they are and as such don't have the frame of reference to understand when something was unusual or notable to people at the time. Because of the broad range of life experiences and occupations of the subjects of this book, it does a long way to help us perceive the changing world of the eighteenth century in social and domestic circumstances, in science, in art, in philosophy, in industry, in politics, etc.

    It can't be all sunshine and roses, however. Paradoxically and frustratingly for me, it has been a long time since I've read a history that felt like it was deliberately keeping things from me. By that I mean, Damrosch has two habits of writing that I find extremely annoying:

    The first is referencing another historian's work but not naming them in the work ("one historian says", "in a recent history", etc.) This strikes me as extremely intellectually ungenerous and irritating to read, as it means I am constantly flipping back and forth to the index at the back of the book to find out who he is getting his ideas from.

    The second complaint is that Damrosch chooses to focus his efforts on a very small proportion of the members of The Club and refuses to name members he deems unworthy of attention. I don't mind that the scope is narrow, but because he refuses to identify the criteria for who is considers important it can be frustrating to read passages that reference unnamed 'other members' of the club who Damrosch deems unworthy to name or discuss further. The unifying theme of The Club feels disingenuous since the book spends very little time describing the actual content of the meetings and then only considers a few of the members important enough to discuss.

    Overall, I enjoyed this book both because I found Damosch's writing pleasant and engaging to read and because the people within it were so interesting. I do not know that a more experienced reader of the eighteenth century will get much new out of the experience, but I certainly learned a lot and it has given me a lot to think on.

  • Marks54

    This is a history of one of the original London clubs that developed as a place where the emerging bourgeois professional and literary class of London could gather for food, drink, fellowship, and talking - lots of talking. The club members were self-selected and it was hard to join. Members included Joshua Reynolds, Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, Edward Gibbon, David Garrick, and others, eventually including James Boswell, who wrote the great biography of Johnson. The “Club” began in

    This is a history of one of the original London clubs that developed as a place where the emerging bourgeois professional and literary class of London could gather for food, drink, fellowship, and talking - lots of talking. The club members were self-selected and it was hard to join. Members included Joshua Reynolds, Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, Edward Gibbon, David Garrick, and others, eventually including James Boswell, who wrote the great biography of Johnson. The “Club” began in 1763 and continued into the 20th century as the London Literary Society. One gets a good sense of what discussions at the club were like due to some example provided by the copious note taking of Boswell. The heart of the story however, is twofold. First, it is the story of Johnson and Boswell, which is worthwhile on its own - although readers who have not done so should read Boswell’s bio of Johnson. The second focus of the book is to provide briefer lives of the most noteworthy of the initial group members, along with some summaries of their critical works.

    So the idea is that by looking at the life and works of the key members of the club, one gets a better picture of the emerging intellectual life of London in the Georgian Era. In this sense, the book is similar to “The Metaphysical Club” by Louis Menand (2001) which provided a group biography of a discussion group after the Civil War ;;that included Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., William James, and Charles Pierce, among others. Menand’s book was wonderful and won a Pulitzer. Damrosch’s book is also superb and he has an astonishing cast of characters with which to work. The club as a vehicle for discussing all the participants works sufficiently to tell a good story. The major players are outstanding. In addition, Damrosch also works in a number of women associated with club members who also contributed to this rich intellectual life, although the club never admitted women. Johnson and Boswell are still the stars of this show, but the supporting cast is worthwhile. The chapters on David Garrick and the London Theatre scene are especially good.

  • Angie Boyter

    An intellectual history of the late eighteenth century through the lives of some remarkable men

    Eighteenth-century England was a lively place! Captain Cook was exploring the South Seas. Playwrights like Richard Sheridan and Oliver Goldsmith were writing plays we still enjoy, and David Garrick was acting in them. Adam Smith was inventing modern economics. And so on. Despite the breadth of the innovation, exploration, and accomplishments in that era, though, the cast of characters who played major

    An intellectual history of the late eighteenth century through the lives of some remarkable men

    Eighteenth-century England was a lively place! Captain Cook was exploring the South Seas. Playwrights like Richard Sheridan and Oliver Goldsmith were writing plays we still enjoy, and David Garrick was acting in them. Adam Smith was inventing modern economics. And so on. Despite the breadth of the innovation, exploration, and accomplishments in that era, though, the cast of characters who played major roles all seemed to know one another! The Club focuses on one small remarkable group of men who gathered for camaraderie and stimulating conversation and uses their lives to open the door onto the big picture of the intellectual life of the period. It is amazing how such a small group could have so much influence in their own time and later. These are practically all names we remember: Samuel Johnson for his dictionary and literary criticism, James Boswell for biography, Edmund Burke for his oratory, Edward Gibbon for his history, Adam Smith for economics, Sir Joshua Reynolds for painting, David Garrick for acting, and even Joseph Banks, who traveled with Captain Cook and later was president of the Royal Society.

    Damrosch’s primary emphasis is on Johnson and Boswell, and he devotes about a third of the book to a description of their lives before the Club is formed. The other members each get a chapter, and even in those chapters there is a lot of description of their interaction with Boswell and Johnson. The activities of the Club itself take up only a fairly small part of the book. No matter who or what the subject is at any time, though, Damrosch gives the bigger picture as well, on subjects like religious controversy, matters of class, and similar social issues. There are a lot of a lot of interesting detours. For example, the chapter on Johnson’s early career includes a section on his friendship with several women writers, Elizabeth Carter, whose translation of Epictetus was still being reprinted as late as 1910, and Charlotte Lennox, whose novel The Female Quixote may have been Jane Austen’s inspiration for Northanger Abbey (Austen acknowledged that she loved the book.). There is interesting history of the emergence of the modern magazine during this period and the difficulty of making a living as a writer (Some things never change.).

    The Club provides a vivid narrative picture, so it is only fitting that it should include illustrations provided by the art of the day. Damrosch describes the many artworks that are shown in the book, which was very helpful, because he explains the significance of small details in the pictures that the reader could miss or not understand and also because, in the Kindle edition at least, the details were not legible, even when I enlarged the picture to full-screen size. , e.g., fig. 6 is a picture of Edward Cave holding a letter addressed to him at St. John’s Gate, a significant location.

    At its best The Club is a fascinating broad sweeping portrait that also teems with delightful factoids and sidebars. It quotes extensively from sources contemporary to (and some earlier than) the Club members and from sources contemporary to Damrosch. At its worst it is annoying or confusing, as Damrosch cannot help sharing his genuinely encyclopedic knowledge of history. For example, when Damrosch describes Johnson’s friendship with writer Charlotte Lennox he tells us that Johnson organized a party for her when her first novel was published in 1751 at the Devil Tavern, which had been a favorite of Ben Jonson, who died in 1637. He then goes on to quote Ben Jonson’s friend Drummond about Jonson’s fondness for drink. Why are we talking about Ben Jonson? In another section he discusses how Boswell’s journal shows his early skill at bringing social events to life and says he “happened to meet a retired attorney at a dinner party [who] sings Tarry Woo with the English accent”. Damrosch then tells us that Tarry Woo is one of the few songs that Sir Walter Scott was willing to sing in company. I thought “Was Scott an attorney? I thought he lived later than that”. Scott was not born until 1771. So why was he mentioned here? When I see detours like this I then look to see how they tie into the subject, but often they are simply Damrosch sharing his love of information.

    Readers who expect a tightly focused history of The Club based on the book title may be disappointed. If you want to enjoy it, I recommend that you approach it as Damrosch does his description of the artwork in the book: there is a lot going on, and sometimes you need to see the little details in order to get the big picture.

    My thanks to NetGalley and Yale University Press for an advance review copy of this book.

  • JQAdams

    The subtitle is a better guide than the title or marketing materials here: while the book presents itself as a group biography of a weekly club of eminent late-1700s London personages, Damrosch mostly cares about Samuel Johnson and James Boswell, so you mostly get a double biography of those two with occasional, usually short chapters thrown in about other members. Or about non-club members who were important to Johnson or Boswell. People like Hester Thrale Piozzi get at least as much attention

    The subtitle is a better guide than the title or marketing materials here: while the book presents itself as a group biography of a weekly club of eminent late-1700s London personages, Damrosch mostly cares about Samuel Johnson and James Boswell, so you mostly get a double biography of those two with occasional, usually short chapters thrown in about other members. Or about non-club members who were important to Johnson or Boswell. People like Hester Thrale Piozzi get at least as much attention as do people in the club.

    Since a startling proportion of the other club members are still famous in their own right (Adam Smith, Edward Gibbon, Edmund Burke, Richard Brinsley Sheridan) or are prominent enough to be familiar to people with even slight interest in the period (Joshua Reynolds, Oliver Goldsmith, Charles James Fox, Joseph Banks, David Garrick, Charles Burney), that bait-and-switch rankled. There was rich enough material here to support an account more focused on the club, and learning about the more obscure members might have provided a fresher window on things than would yet another biography of Johnson. Moreover, by hedging the bets, there is just enough non-Johnson-or-Boswell material to feel like a distraction from the main text (even when other people are presented mostly in how Johnson and Boswell reacted to them: there's a whole chapter about how Johnson and Boswell disliked Gibbon in large part because

    didn't present Christianity as diffusing because of divine right), but not enough to feel like the other club-members are covered adequately.

    It was an interesting book overall, even if Damrosch continues to be disproportionately interested in people's sex lives. But I would have enjoyed it more had it felt like it ever decided what it was trying to do.

  • Peter Tillman

    Joseph Epsein's rave review:

    [paywalled. Ask if you would like a copy].

    "What historical era produced the greatest aggregate of human intelligence? Fifth century B.C. Greece provided Socrates and Plato, Pericles and Phidias. In 18th-century France there were the philosophes, among them D’Alembert, Diderot, Voltaire, Helvétius. The founding generation of the republic—Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton and Adams—would be America’s entry. My own choice would be for

    Joseph Epsein's rave review:

    [paywalled. Ask if you would like a copy].

    "What historical era produced the greatest aggregate of human intelligence? Fifth century B.C. Greece provided Socrates and Plato, Pericles and Phidias. In 18th-century France there were the philosophes, among them D’Alembert, Diderot, Voltaire, Helvétius. The founding generation of the republic—Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton and Adams—would be America’s entry. My own choice would be for middle- and late 18th-century London, where Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, Edward Gibbon, Joshua Reynolds, Oliver Goldsmith, James Boswell, David Garrick, Charles James Fox, Adam Smith, David Hume and Richard Brinsley Sheridan walked the streets. These men knew one another well and, with the exception of Hume, belonged to the same club, which met on Friday evenings at the Turk’s Head Tavern, at 9 Gerrard Street, off the Strand. Here was a club that even Groucho Marx, who claimed he wouldn’t care to belong to any club that would accept him as a member, could not have resisted joining."

    I like well-crafted reviews, Epstein's is wonderful. Read it, even if you don't read the book.

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