Humphrey Littlewit, Esq., (a.k.a. H.P. Lovecraft) wrote an entertaining set piece called A Reminiscence of Dr. Samuel Johnson that was published in The United Amateur in 1917. It is one of the very few times Lovecraft used a pseudonym—clearly the intent of the name was to add to the humorous tone of the story. S.T. Joshi was impressed with “the most flawless re-creation of eighteenth-century English I have ever read.” But unlike the King James Bible-ese (circa 1769) that afflicts a number of Lovecraft’s less successful efforts, here the language is breezy and conversational, and the author’s cleverness sparkles in every paragraph.
The story imagines a visit by a 228 year old writer and publisher of a literary paper (the ‘Londoner’) who decides to ‘unburthen’ himself of various recollections. These memories are chiefly of the repartee among various members of his literary circle. Which circle contained such 18th century luminaries as Jonathon Swift, Alexander Pope, Oliver Goldsmith, James Boswell, and of course, Samuel Johnson.
The narrator describes various interactions, mostly with Dr. Johnson, who cleverly and inevitably puts him in his place. When he asks Johnson how he could be critical of his Londoner paper without ever having seen it, Johnson responds: “I do not require to become familiar with a Man’s Writings in order to estimate the Superficiality of his Attainments, when he plainly shews it by his Eagerness to mention his own Productions in the first Question he puts to me.”
“Having thus become friends...” says the narrator, and rambles on. There is a lot of name dropping and what amounts to snippets of literary gossip. The tone of the story may remind some English majors of sections from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, though that author was not of the same class or literary inclination as the characters depicted here.
Now and then Lovecraft throws in an anachronism: In describing the quality of the discourse in his literary circle, the narrator laments how “In these Meetings we preserv’d a remarkable Degree of Amity and Tranquility, which contrasts very favourably with some of the Dissensions and Disruptions I observe in the literary and amateur Press Associations of today.” Since this story was published in The United Amateur, one wonders to what extent Littlewit’s chronicle was intended as some kind of in joke among association members.
A Reminiscence of Dr. Samuel Johnson shows Lovecraft’s love for the literature and sensibility of the 18th century. Perhaps it also shows his longing, if only in fantasy, to finally belong to a renowned circle of writers and thinkers. The survival of a lost or forgotten past is a common theme in much of Lovecraft’s fiction. It is interesting to compare the narrator of this story to the evil old man in He (1926). That gentleman was also able to survive into the early 1900s—by mastering certain occult arts. It is a much darker story, though. Littlewit has pleasant recollections to share with “the Members of this Generation”, but the old man in He not only remembers but prophesizes doom for us all.
Both Ibid and A Reminiscence of Dr. Samuel Johnson are recommended reading for Lovecraft enthusiasts. Lovecraft had a well developed sense of humor and it is a shame there are not more examples of it.
What if instead of becoming a writer of horror and science fiction, Lovecraft instead had developed his knack for literary criticism? His skill, enthusiasm, and advocacy for effective writing are evident in his letters and in his communications as an active member of amateur press associations. (He would have been a very conservative critic, concerned with the preservation of traditional spelling and grammar rules, and preoccupied with formalist technique in poetry.)
What if he had become a professor of English? Certainly he had a love of the language and the classics. One can imagine him as a curmudgeonly defender of refined and traditional English writing. What would he have made of linguistic novelties like “textese”, Spanglish, Ebonics or—closer to his own time frame—Esperanto?