Review of The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia by Samuel Johnson

A passing acquaintance with Samuel Johnson will reveal that the man could write splendidly.

He possessed, by all accounts, an unapproachable intellect. His literary works are reminiscent of Voltaire’s: witty, erudite, vast, and infinitely readable. His travel accounts and the biography by Boswell are considered paragons of their genre.

Sadly, Rasselas is his only true novel, and it is a short one. The rest of his corpulent corpus was composed of a book-length literary evaluation of Shakespeare’s plays, biographies of major poets, an important (in its time) and well-crafted dictionary of the English language, and serial publications, which when compiled, are enjoyable “agony-uncle” style epistolary philosophical tracts. Take almost any sampling of his work, and you are almost guaranteed to be delighted – if you delight in profound insight into the nature of the human soul and its relation to the world. His sentences are complex, daunting, but continually stimulating. Rasselas, more so than The Rambler, is probably the best introduction to his work. It is not exactly a masterpiece, but is is far more interesting, in my opinion, than his plays and poems (the only other things he wrote which can be digested without much effort).

Written for quick money in the space of a week, this charming novella, in the style of Candide or A Voyage to the Moon by Cyrano de Bergerac (if that means anything to you), is nonetheless a brilliant morale tale, both timeless and grounded in the atmosphere of Johnson’s mind (an intellectual Christian moralist, who sympathized with common folk), even if it takes place in Abyssinia, and various points along the map traversed by its sentimental characters. I found it to be a picaresque read, and enjoyed the analysis of the relative merits of different approaches to life – themes later explored at exhaustive length in The Rambler.

You have the prince, who wishes to experience the world, and who must do so at the expense of the luxury he is entitled to. Of course, he travels in style, sampling temples and lively districts, and encountering unexpected wonders, similarly to Gulliver during his sojourn. It is not a scathing critique and contains very little of a risque nature, as in Voltaire, but that makes it all the more approachable in my mind, and enjoyable to casual readers.

Samuel Johnson is a writer to enjoy over a lifetime, one to study. One of the giants of literary history, comparing him to Voltaire and Goethe is only a slight exaggeration of his powers. His strengths lie in the didactic discussion, which will become readily apparent if you embark on his great later works, which I have been doggy-paddling through slowly for some years, since the Rambler, not to mention the Idler, and his seemingly endless, encyclopedic miscellanies is a daunting task indeed.