Samuel Johnson's Rambler and the invention of self-help literature

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2005

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Kinkade, John Steven

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Abstract

This dissertation argues that Samuel Johnson’s Rambler, a series of essays written between 1750 and 1752, helped established a new genre of advice writing, the self-help book. This genre depends on a method of caring for the self that privileges an autonomous identity that defines itself, through labor, against upper class values. Though Johnson employs many of the tropes and tactics of courtesy and civility literature, his work offers a new focus on the discipline of one’s mind and the assertion of an independent self in an urban culture. Chapter 1 provides an overview of the history of conduct literature, following its changes from Renaissance courtesy literature, which focused on the court, to civility literature, which emphasized the importance of participation in a broader public sphere. Johnson was conscious of the civility tradition, especially as a context in which periodical essays were written, and of the didactic possibilities of literature. The second chapter examines how Johnson’s Rambler adopts the topics of earlier conduct literature but shifts the focus of his advice from sociability to the cultivation of the self. He teaches his readers the importance of an interior discipline, as opposed to the discipline of the body that marked courtesy and civility literature, and of the centrality of labor in developing a self. The third chapter argues that Johnson writes a self-help text geared specifically towards writers and scholars. Johnson frequently invokes this audience, advising them on what constitutes professional behavior for writers, and producing in The Rambler a manual of professionalization for a previously ill-defined profession. Chapter 4 argues that Johnson tries to extend his ethic of self-help to a female audience, arguing for the importance of learning and an autonomous self. However, because Johnson cannot imagine contexts in which women’s labor truly becomes meaningful, self-help fails to make sense as a tactic for women, a limitation imposed by a culture that does not value women as equals. Reading The Rambler as a self-help book offers us a better understanding of the importance of Johnson’s work and an appreciation of an under-studied genre.

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