The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 8. Reports of Debates in Parliament
In the letter which Johnson sent to Cave from Birmingham in 1734, besides offering to contribute, he suggested several improvements. For “the low jests, awkward buffoonery, or the dull scurrilities of either party,” which were to procure for it or its imitators a place in The Dunciad, might be substituted, he thought, “short literary dissertations in Latin or English, critical remarks on authors ancient or modern, or loose pieces worth preserving.” Nothing came of the letter; but the suggestion that the Magazine should take itself more seriously accorded with Cave’s business instincts, and the changes gradually introduced were in accordance with Johnson’s wishes. His first contribution, the Latin alcaics beginning Urbane, nullis fesse laboribus, did not appear till March, 1738. From that time, he was regularly employed; and he at once asserted some sort of literary control. There cannot be any doubt that the subsequent steady rise in the character of the Magazine was largely due to him. He also helped to guide its fortunes through a grave crisis. Reports of the proceedings and debates in parliament had been given in the Magazine since 1732; but, on 13 April, 1738, the House of Commons declared such reports to be “a notorious breach of the Privilege of this House.” The Magazine could not easily omit a section on which much of its popularity depended, and, in June, 1738, there appeared “debates in the Senate of Magna Lilliputia.” If, as Hawkins says, the device was Cave’s, it had Johnson’s approval; and his hand is unmistakable in the passage in which the device is explained. He began by editing the reports, which continued to be written by William Guthrie, the first of his many Scottish friends. He was their sole author only for the thirty-six numbers and supplements from July, 1741 to March, 1744, and author rather than reporter. According to Hawkins, he had never entered either House; according to Murphy, he had once found his way into the House of Commons. He expanded in Cave’s printing-office, long after the actual debates, the scanty notes supplied to him, and invested them with his own argumentative skill and eloquence. Some of the speeches are said to represent what was said by more than one speaker; others he described as the mere coinage of his imagination. His reports are, in fact, original work, and a very great work. To us who know the secret of their authorship, it is surprising that they should not have been recognised as the work of a man of letters. They are on a high level of literary excellence, and there is an obvious uniformity in the style. Even when they succeed in suggesting the idiosyncrasies of the different speakers, they show one cast of mind and texture of language. They are Johnson’s own debates on the political questions of the day, based—and based only—on the debates in parliament. He said, within a few days of his death, that he wrote them “with more velocity” than any other work—often three columns of the Magazine within the hour, and, once, ten pages between noon and early evening. The wonder is, not so much that debates thus written could have been so good, as that debates so good could have been accepted as giving the words of the speakers. Johnson had not expected this; and, when he recognised it, he determined not to be any longer “accessory to the propagation of falsehood.” This is the explanation given for his sudden abandonment of them in 1744. But the secret was long kept, and they continued to be regarded as genuine. There is more of Johnson than of Pitt in the famous speech about “the atrocious crime of being a young man.” And two speeches entirely written by him appeared, to his amusement, in the collected works of Chesterfield.