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All Boys Together

James Ward
The Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped an Age, by Leo Damrosch, Yale University Press, 488 pp, £20, ISBN 978-0300217902 The Club is a love story; or, in classically inflected terms of which its protagonists might have approved, a prosopographia of homosocial desire. Lawrence Stone noted in his 1971 essay “Prosopography” that the genre of group biography is founded on the preservation of ephemera and the meticulous recording of everyday life’s seemingly inconsequential details. James Boswell performed these labours on behalf of Samuel Johnson and his many circles of social and professional acquaintance, the most celebrated of which gives this book its title. Boswell can therefore be placed in the company of those “diligent antiquaries, clergymen and scholars” who, Stone writes, began from the eighteenth century onwards to amass such biographical data “in quite astonishing quantities”. “In terms of psychological motivation,” he added, “these obsessive collectors belong to the same category of anal-erotic males as the collectors of butterflies, postages stamps or cigarette cards.” As well as material objects, the erotics of biography extend to human subjects. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick popularised the concept of homosociality in Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (1992), a brilliant book which set out what might appear, when its insight is acquired as hindsight, to have been one of literary history’s central, even obvious, facts. Ranging through the male literary canon from Shakespeare to Dickens and beyond, Sedgwick pointed out that while such works tend to be read or misread as leading to an endpoint of heterosexual union, what shapes them is the circulation of libidinal energy through contact, competition and camaraderie between males which is not, in the end, categorically different from love. Even more than for their imaginative content, literary works have historically depended on such energies, channelled through networks of collaboration and support, for their production. These weren’t necessarily or exclusively male. As detailed in Norma Clarke’s Dr Johnson’s Women (2005) the central figure of the club, Samuel Johnson, enjoyed female collaboration and friendship throughout his career, appearing as a character in Charlotte Lennox’s novel The Female Quixote (1752) and spending much time among a parallel group centred on Hester Thrale. Nonetheless the all-male circle which gives The Club its name has a symbolism which exceeds its relatively modest historic purpose. Part artistic coterie, part gentleman’s club, it stands on the one hand for easy conviviality and mutual support; on the other it emblematises the continuing, and…

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