Book Review: 'The Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped An Age'

Mar 9, 2020

Before there was the Algonquin Round Table in New York in the ‘20s, a lunch group of literary bon vivants whose often quotable put downs would become famous, there was – and STILL IS – The Club, a unique London tavern assembly of intellectuals, started in 1764, that included some of the most dazzling verbal sharpshooters of the day. 


Their extraordinary, wide-ranging conversations, passionate arguments and often hilarious provocations and rejoinders have now been captured by the award-winning cultural critic Leo Damrosch. Called “The Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped An Age,” this fascinating history will likely prove one of the most engaging, enlightening and delicious books you’ll come across in a long time.


Damrosch wears his scholarship with ease and grace, including references, as he genially corrects or adds ironic commentary to the private lives and public careers he celebrates. As the title has it, he follows the arcs of the humbly born Samuel Johnson and of Johnson’s young acolyte, the aristocratic Scot, James Boswell. And their friends. And enemies. And admirers who could be both.


What names: Edmund Burke, Edward Gibbon (whom both Johnson and Boswell loathed), Adam Smith, Joshua Reynolds, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Oliver Goldsmith, David Garrick – yes, only men – but most from the middle class and selected for the club (unanimous vote required) because of their diverse professions. But over all of them shone the leading light, Dr. Samuel Johnson, whose quirky spectacular “Dictionary”the grandchild of the OED, still delights.


Boswell, who finally immortalized his hero in “The Life of Samuel Johnson” in 1791 met Johnson when the great man was in his early fifties and Boswell in his early twenties. But it was a match made in heaven, for them and for posterity. And now thanks to Damrosch, for us.


Who knew that Johnson championed women writers, or how much he relied on their friendship to stave off depression, which Damrosch believes was likely obsessive-compulsive disorder? It was, in fact, a hope to pull Johnson out of his black humor that his good friend, the famous portrait artist Joshua Reynolds, suggested forming a social club.


Boswell, too, was subject to “mercurial mood swings that would almost certainly be diagnosed today as bipolar disorder,” Damrosch writes, speculating that Johnson and Boswell’s mutual dread of mental illness was one of the reasons for their deep friendship. Johnson was without an heir, Boswell, the despised son of a cold, imperious laird. They took to each other immediately, Johnson a pragmatist, Boswell a romantic. Johnson a compassionate moralist and Boswell the unbelievably sexually active diarist and lawyer, who bedded, among hundreds, Rousseau’s wife.   


With unforgettable anecdotes and quotations, Damrosch shows that The Club did indeed shape an age. Here are its formative members in the flesh – wine-sotted wits whose noisy, contradictory, brilliant interactions reflected and influenced an often violent world of war, disease and early death. Theirs was an age of “words, words, words,” to quote Hamlet, a love of which, as Damrosch shows, often superseded partisan politics and favored philosophies.   


As if all this richness were not enough, “The Club” excels in color photos and black and white drawings Damrosch integrates into his text. This is, simply put, a marvelous and memorable book.