In Discussing Literary Hero, English Professor Receives ‘Greatest Honor’
"What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure." — Samuel Johnson
Recently, Dr. John Scanlan was given a singular opportunity to publicly read with great pleasure something that he wrote with effort — a fitting tribute considering the subject of the piece.
At a formal event at the Century Association in New York City, Scanlan, an associate professor of English, presented a talk entitled “JOHNSON: (smiling).” to nearly 100 members of The Johnsonians — a society for leading scholars of Dr. Samuel Johnson, one of the eighteenth century’s greatest literary figures. The paper traced the somewhat surprising development of Johnson’s sense of humor over the course of his long literary career.
Johnson is perhaps most famous for his A Dictionary of the English Language — considered one of the greatest achievements of scholarship and the forerunner to the Oxford English Dictionary. He was a preeminent essayist, literary critic, and moralist, and has been a fascination of Scanlan’s since his undergraduate days.
“I can remember the very first time I read Samuel Johnson at Rutgers College,” he said. “We were reading King Lear, and in the back of the book was Samuel Johnson’s criticism. I found it fascinating.”
From that accidental meeting, a 35-year love of all things Samuel Johnson was born.
“He was extraordinarily learned, and one of the great achievements of his writing is the ability to consolidate, in an attractive way, so much of what he read,” Scanlan explained.
“I think he’s stayed with me because so much of his writing is reassuring. It gives you strength. At different points in your life, you can read him in different ways and like him for different reasons.”
Scanlan, a member of the Johnson Society of London, the Johnson Society of the Central Region (midwestern U.S. and Canada), and the Johnson Society of Southern California, is more than simply a fan of Johnson. He teaches The Age of Johnson at PC in a style, he likes to think, Johnson would approve.
“The students love to take over the class, which is very Johnsonian,” said Scanlan, who has taught at PC 1988. “He was very much self-educated. A lot of students are taking control of their education these days. The germ of the idea can be found in Johnson.”
An honor above all others
Though he is a respected scholar and teacher of Johnson, Scanlan still finds it unimaginable that he was asked to give the lecture.
“I never thought this would happen. Ever. I can receive any honor in the future and, in some sense, it wouldn’t add up,” he said.
While Scanlan often discusses Johnson at academic conferences, he explained that giving this talk tested him unlike any other.
“It’s not only an honor you get for something that you’ve done — you have to prove it, too,” he said. “All the people in attendance were Johnsonians. It can be a very tough crowd. It’s a great honor but also a challenge — people are ready to challenge you. If they didn’t like what they heard, they wouldn’t for a second have waited to toss and gore me — which is what Johnson would have done.”