Oranges, Anecdote and the Nature of Things


On August 6, 1763, the man who would become the greatest master of anecdotal form in English, James Boswell, and the object of his adulation and future biographical subject, Samuel Johnson, enter a church in Harwich. Boswell is about to take unwilling leave of his new friend, who is doing him the honor of seeing him off on his voyage to Holland. They approach the altar: “Johnson, whose piety was constant and fervent, sent me to my knees, saying, ‘Now that you are going to leave your native country, recommend yourself to the protection of your CREATOR and REDEEMER.’” Outside the church they talk “of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal.” Johnson is provoked by his companion’s assertion that “though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it.” “I shall never forget the alacrity,” Boswell avows, “with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, ‘I refute it thus’” (Boswell I: 471). In this most iconic of Johnsoniana, the thing speaks for itself. Johnson’s constant faith in his creator is equaled and expressed by his faith in the reality of objects. The anecdote, by extension, expresses Boswell’s faith in Johnson; it is representative of the way in which, as I argued in Loving Dr. Johnson, “the force of the collision of man and object enacts the solidity of both, a solidity bolstered by the anecdote’s unique proximity to historical reality” (49).

Read Article On Muse