“It seems to me,” F. L. Lucas writes in the introduction to The Search for Good Sense, “mere common sense never to undertake a piece of work, or read a book, without asking, ‘Is it worth the amount of life it will cost?’ … ‘Will it make life more vivid, more intelligent, more complete, more real?’”
To which, in this case, I can answer, most heartily, Yes!
On the rare occasions when the name of F(rank) L(aurence) Lucas comes up these days, it’s in connection with his masterpiece, Style, which is one of the best things ever written about writing prose and, sadly, scarcer than hens’ teeth. Lucas wrote dozens of books–novels, poetry, drama, essays, history, political pieces, great swaths of historical literary criticism, and numerous compilations of the works of writers major and minor. Of the last, T. S. Eliot once wrote that Lucas was “the perfect annotator.” Pretty much none of it is in print today.
The Search for Good Sense deals with four masters of eighteenth-century English literature–Samuel Johnson, Lord Chesterfield, James Boswell, and Oliver Goldsmith. Its companion volume, The Art of Living, covers four more: Hume, Burke, Franklin, and Horace Walpole. “It would have been easier,” Lucas acknowledges, “to combine both in a single volume; but in this age of growing bustle and mounting prices there is, more often than ever, truth in the adage of Callimachus, librarian of Alexandria–’a big book is a big evil.’” And this is a perfect example of the pleasures that come with taking an excursion into some past lives with such a profoundly well-read and yet profoundly pragmatic guide. Hardly a page goes by without a delicious quote that begs to be repeated.
Each of Lucas’ biographical essays is between 60 and 120 pages long. He “attempts to omit nothing that is really vital, and to include nothing that is not….” Yet he manages to include more than a few detours that no one would choose to delete for the sake of a page or two. Though Lucas is a passionate defender of the essential importance of the main principle of the Age of Reason–namely, that civilization depends upon our ability to master our emotions through the application of reason–he acknowledges that, “Part of the composure of the educated in the eighteenth century came, I suspect, from their power still to digest what was known….”
In fact, as he later shows in his essay on Goldsmith, even in the eighteenth century, working writers sometimes had to venture well beyond what was known–at least to them. “If he can distinguish a cow from a horse, that, I believe, may be the extent of his knowledge of natural history,” Dr. Johnson once said of Goldsmith. That didn’t prevent Goldsmith from writing an entire book–and a big one–on the subject, one which included gems such as the account of the tragic squirrel flotillas excerpted here recently.
Dr. Johnson is, of course, the grandest figure of the four men covered in The Search for Good Sense. “We treasure his memory partly because he was often wise and good, but partly–let us own it–because he could also resemble an intoxicated hippopotamus.” Although Lucas gives credit to the merits of Johnson’s own works, he is clear-eyed enough to admit that much of it embodies the worst of eighteenth-century English prose: verbose, oratorical, and inclined never to take the shortest path between two points. Yet “few men seem to me to have struggled more against the constant human temptation to say and believe, or pretend to believe, what is comfortable, conventional, lazy, or pleasant.” For Lucas, who had survived gassing and shelling on the Western Front, witnessed the devastation caused by Fascism and Communism, and railed against the evils of groupthink long before Orwell gave it a name, this was no small accomplishment.
In contrast to Johnson and his war with conventions Lucas then offers the example Lord Chesterfield, who held good manners above all other values. “I am very sure,” chesterfield wrote in one of his once-highly-regarded instructional letters to his son, “that any man of common understanding may, by proper culture, care, attention, and labour make himself whatever he pleases.” To which Lucas responds, “In what world, one wonders, do people live who can imagine such nonsense?” Having watched his own children grow up, Lucas rates “inborn nature definitely more important than upbringing.” As a father of twins, I put myself squarely on his side: most of what they are or ever will be comes with them out of the womb. “All the pages ever penned in defence of Chesterfield’s paternal preachments do not seem to me worth four words of honest old Augustine Birrell–’Ugh, what a father!’”
Lucas is not one to kick a man when he’s down, though:
After all, it is fair to remember that we have one unfair advantage over him–he is dead, and we live later. Let us not abuse it. If we find much to critize in him, he would have found much to disdain in us–in our follies and vulgarities, in our press and our advertisements, in our literature, our art, and our society.
From stuffy old Lord Chesterfield, Lucas then launches into messy, earthy, pushy, self-obsessed James Boswell: “The central dissension over James Boswell turns on the question–ass or genius?” Lucas had the benefit of writing after the discovery and publication of Boswell’s journals. The journals helped set Boswell’s Life of Johnson into their proper context–that of an extract from Boswell’s magnum opus: “part of the far vaster, journalized autobiography of Boswell himself. The Life of Johnson is really only an outwork of a far huger Life of Boswell. Still, he rates Boswell’s obsession with recording events in his journal “an attitude to me as fantastic as the ancient Egyptian feeling that what happened to one’s body living mattered less than having it properly pickled for eternity.”
All the same, despite Boswell’s constant indulgences of his appetites, Lucas most definitely positions himself on the side of those who consider Boswell a genius:
In this aspect Boswell was a kind of grotesque anthropologist–a species of scientist. But he was also an artist. Biography, like history, remains art as well as science. Its paramount duty is truth. But though it should tell nothing but the truth, it cannot possibly tell the whole truth. It must select, or die of its own unwieldly corpulence. The thoughts of a single day might burst a whole volume of autobiography; sufficient research might swell the life of a single man to the size of an encyclopedia in thirty volumes. But it would leave the man’s personality, which is the central theme of biography as of portrait-painting, swamped and blurred. To read it would be as tedious and impractical as a walking tour of Siberia.
Boswell’s genius, in Lucas’ estimation, was in two crucial choices: to choose Johnson, of all the contemporaries he could have taken up with; and to have “the further good sense to select Johnson’s talk as the main feature of that subject.” If he had erred in either decision, the Life would have been no better remembered today than any dozen other biographies published the same year.
Lucas rounds out his quartet with a sketch of the life and works of Oliver Goldsmith. The Vicar of Wakefield is no longer the staple work of 18th century literature it was in my father’s and grandfather’s day (my sons and probably most of their contemporaries read Candide instead), but for Lucas, he earns his place through the quality of his character and humanity as much as through the quality of his pen: “Goldsmith remains an example of what goodness, good sense, grace, gaiety, and simplicity can do, even in a harsh world preoccupied with many meaner things.”
I dog-eared so many pages while reading The Search for Good Sense that even if I quoted from just one in four, this post would have to run on for another thousand-plus words. But out of respect for Lucas, who once wrote that “Brevity is first of all a form of courtesy,” I must confine myself to just one final aphorism from the many gems that lie waiting in this book:
In lovers’ quarrels, only the lovers know all the facts, but cannot judge them dispassionately; while those who might judge them dispassionately, cannot possibly know all the facts.