The Life of Johnson HTML version

The Gentleman's Magazine, begun and carried on by Mr. Edward Cave, under the name
of SYLVANUS URBAN, had attracted the notice and esteem of Johnson, in an eminent
degree, before he came to London as an adventurer in literature. He told me, that when he
first saw St. John's Gate, the place where that deservedly popular miscellany was
originally printed, he 'beheld it with reverence.'
It appears that he was now enlisted by Mr. Cave as a regular coadjutor in his magazine,
by which he probably obtained a tolerable livelihood. At what time, or by what means, he
had acquired a competent knowledge both of French and Italian, I do not know; but he
was so well skilled in them, as to be sufficiently qualified for a translator. That part of his
labour which consisted in emendation and improvement of the productions of other
contributors, like that employed in levelling ground, can be perceived only by those who
had an opportunity of comparing the original with the altered copy. What we certainly
know to have been done by him in this way, was the Debates in both houses of
Parliament, under the name of 'The Senate of Lilliput,' sometimes with feigned
denominations of the several speakers, sometimes with denominations formed of the
letters of their real names, in the manner of what is called anagram, so that they might
easily be decyphered. Parliament then kept the press in a kind of mysterious awe, which
made it necessary to have recourse to such devices. In our time it has acquired an
unrestrained freedom, so that the people in all parts of the kingdom have a fair, open, and
exact report of the actual proceedings of their representatives and legislators, which in
our constitution is highly to be valued; though, unquestionably, there has of late been too
much reason to complain of the petulance with which obscure scribblers have presumed
to treat men of the most respectable character and situation.
This important article of the Gentlemen's Magazine was, for several years, executed by
Mr. William Guthrie, a man who deserves to be respectably recorded in the literary
annals of this country. The debates in Parliament, which were brought home and digested
by Guthrie, whose memory, though surpassed by others who have since followed him in
the same department, was yet very quick and tenacious, were sent by Cave to Johnson for
his revision; and, after some time, when Guthrie had attained to greater variety of
employment, and the speeches were more and more enriched by the accession of
Johnson's genius, it was resolved that he should do the whole himself, from the scanty
notes furnished by persons employed to attend in both houses of Parliament. Sometimes,
however, as he himself told me, he had nothing more communicated to him than the
names of the several speakers, and the part which they had taken in the debate.*
* Johnson later told Boswell that 'as soon as he found that the speeches were thought
genuine he determined that he would write no more of them: for "he would not be
accessary to the propagation of falsehood." And such was the tenderness of his
conscience, that a short time before his death he expressed his regret for his having been
the authour of fictions which had passed for realities.'--Ed.