This year’s lucky pair of turkeys that received a presidential pardon for not being sent to a slaughterhouse is Chocolate and Chip. The turkey symbolizes American festivity and character distinguished from all other birds of feathers, such as the eagle, the dove, or even the phoenix. So then it’s only natural to find out why the turkey has become the signature bird of the Thanksgiving holiday on Thanksgiving day.
Benjamin Franklin, the amiable and ingenious American polymath founder, associated a virtue of morality, bravery, and strength with the natural characteristics of the turkey native to the American continent. He proposed that the bird be an emblem of the New Country. While the mystical implication of the bird with the New World has traditionally embodied in the cultural context of the pilgrim’s attributes to the nation’s founding in search of religious freedom from the Old World, the real stories about the American bird encompass the endorsement from the historical figures. George Washington proposed a Thanksgiving in 1789 as a day of “public thanksgiving and prayer,” which was chimed by Alexander Hamilton’s acclimation: “No person should abstain from having turkey on Thanksgiving Day.” But the Thanksgiving tradition began in 1863 when President Lincoln proposed the last Thursday in November as a “day of thanksgiving and praise to Almighty God, the beneficent Creator and Ruler of the Universe.” The regular Thanksgiving dinner menu culminated with one Sarah Joseph Hale, a magazine editor. She wrote Lincoln to urge celebrating the day with roast turkey, savory stuffing, gravy sauce, and pumpkin pie in memory of her beloved New England style of feast staple.
In Europe, the turkey was a poor man’s fanciful feast because it resembled the peacock, a dish fit for the rich. The turkey occupies a dinner table alone as if it could stuff all the hungriest souls for days and nights. I agree with Benjamin Franklin that the turkey is a fit bird to become a bird of national symbol. The eagle may look regal and lofty, but it has no ingenuousness particular to America, which will always be a young country that is still growing and will grow as long as the tradition continues from generation to generation. Happy Thanksgiving.
Great writers are not necessarily great people in the integrity of their characters, which perhaps most of us know, and yet cannot help but associate the excellence in letters with the personal attributes of the writers simply because we are enchanted and gobsmacked by the mind. Samuel Johnson, an eminent English cultural critic of the 18th century, also knew about these somewhat restively volatile facts about famous writers and poets of his time. The result was these entertaining and informative composite biographies of the poets of his time with his trenchantly honest eyes and esteemed erudition to disembarrass the person of the poet from the genius of the poetry.
Originally written as a referencing preamble to an edition of The Poets of Great Britain complete from Chaucer to Churchill, Johnson’s supplementary prefaces became so popular that the booksellers decided they were worthy of separate publication under the subject title of this review. And there were reasons that make Johnson’s biographies of the eminent poets attractive among the insipid panegyrics to the famous. A good bio is read in a way a good novel or short story is enjoyed with characters that are differentiated from the common because of their recalcitrant individualism that gets away with the intellectual attraction and personal flairs despite their flaws. In this regard, Johnson’s wit and sagacity play an essential role in being an objective judge of the characters and their works to the extent that none of his subjective poets could escape from his hawk-eyed criticism, be that ever great or small. Johnson’s biography resembles Herodotus’ parataxis in narrating the accounts of people and events. It consists of a summary of the subject’s life; accounts of their personalities and analyses of their works. The individual narrative account became a history of the poet, which showed something about his work and indicated the person himself.
For example, Johnson’s take on John Milton was so freshly revealing that it upended my view on the creator of The Paradise Lost. I used to think of Milton as a benevolent-looking wise poet whose blindness didn’t stun his will to knowledge and creativity and whose fatherly tenderness toward his daughters encouraged them to be his eyes and hands when the visions of the world became blackout totally for the poet. Instead, Milton was one of those who clamored for the liberty of others but did not grant liberty to others. He was an arrogant intellectual who disparaged the works of others whom he regarded as less intellectually esteemed than his standard, which was despotically biased in terms of impressive academic credentials. Milton’s poetry was intrinsically intellectual and not for the light-hearted pleasure of the heart roving through the meanders of fairyland. His elevated soul ascended in the sphere of the Form, the perfect beauty that was unattainable in this real world.
Johnson also cast somewhat contradicting masks on the creator of Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift. Like Ben Jonson’s iconic characters in his plays, Johnson’s Swift appeared to be both miserly and munificent, flaunting and humble, aloof and social. I particularly liked Swift because, unlike other writers of his time and of our time, he was not an ace student with flying colors on academic subjects. Swift was, however, a great student of learning, always pursuing and laboring to learn however long it might take. He was a man of industry and diligence, which made him all the more human and imitable because his genius was hard-won, not easy born. Methinks that Swift’s resilient spirit tinged with feistiness for an Anglican Church priest had to do with his Irishness. He was an Irish man at heart, in nature and soul. Johnson also attributed the protean imaginativeness and admiring independence of ideas to his Irishness that resulted in wondrous creatures during Gulliver’s travels.
There are other poets than Milton and Swift in the book, and you do not have to read about them all if you are unfamiliar with them or their works because that would go against Johnson’s purpose of the writing. Or you can read the book as an admirer of Johnson’s signatory witty and erudite writings from which you can learn a lot about his subjects and himself. The book serves as an eighteenth-century intriguing exclusive close-up documentary. It is about celebrity poets whom someone like Johnson, who was something of Roger Ebert in the criticism of the art of literature, could unpick and reconstruct as they might have been sans the mindless blinded paeans to their works without even being read. Undoubtedly, Johnson’s views on the poets have been and will be subject to criticism too, but his writings piled with a bonfire of splendidly sparkling expressions and apposite vocabulary drawn on his natural faculty of mind are nonetheless worthwhile to spend your time reading.
Biography is an ancient branch of literature that attests to the unchangeability of human nature against the flow of time. In its literary context, the Bible, composed of 66 books, is about the prophets, kings, sinners, let alone Christ and his disciples. Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad recite the ancient Greek heroes’ honors and foibles during the Trojan War and the aftermath. Plutarch’s Parallel Lives reveal the naked truth about the ancient Greek and Roman powers-that-be who seem to be no less different than their modern descendants in power. There are no other types of writing that are intuitively intriguing than an honest biography. A good biography gives the reader a sensation of reading a private diary that lays bare the subject person’s real persona. Out of this ancient tradition of biography comes Paul Johnson’s Brief Lives of the famous people he has met from all over the world told in episodic vignettes.
The book tells Johnson’s reminiscences of historically notable personalities he has met directly and indirectly throughout his long journalistic career. Ernest Hemingway was not a Pooterish famed writer but a down-to-earth bon vivant with a love of wine. John Paul II was a true vicar of Christ gifted to our mad secular world. Princess Diana had incredible intuition, which was of prime kind channeled into high and low people’s feelings. However, Pablo Picasso was the artist as rich as Croesus with the matching haughtiness. C.S. Lewis was an excellent lecturer whose populous lecture rooms were also an intellectual version of dating hippodrome. And Richard Nixon, regardless of his Watergate infamy, proved himself to be a diligent scholar of history with the admirable zeal of continuous learning. Johnson is a keen observer of people with a prism through which people’s true colors are reflected. It is refreshingly educating to learn about the other, overlooked sides of the infamous and the famous without a gloss of the uniformed panegyrics or accusations, and doing justice to the publicly ill-informed.
It is also interesting to compare the book with Plutarch’s Parallel Lives in terms of its episodic vignette form of writing, making both books more comfortable to read and stimulating to delve into. Johnson’s episodes are vivaciously sprightful and wittily feisty, grasping the reader’s attention from page to page with irresistible curiosity. Johnson and Plutarch use the ordinary language about the extraordinary to serve the purpose of writing biographies for the public with the knowledge about humankind that even the powerful and the beautiful are subject to anfractuous ridges that all humans have to climb in life.
I have read several books by Paul Johnson. All of them are packed full of his trademark wits, conservative but not chauvinistic perspectives on morality, and admirable erudition, thrown into a brilliant bonfire of words enjoyable by general readers. Brief Lives is no exception to the rule, showing that Johnson has ways with the words that make them vernacular in his choice of vocabulary he conjures and scholarly of the sentences he alloys. Samuel Johnson defined an excellent biography that should disclose the person’s human side to show that no one is utterly powerful and beautiful. The book Brief Lives echoes the same.