Monthly Archives: March 2020

“This pamphlet is published to prove what nobody will deny.”



This pamphlet is published to prove what nobody will deny, that we shall be less happy if we were conquered by the French. The intention of the author is undoubtedly good, but his labour is superfluous at a time when all ranks of people are unanimously zealous and active against our enemies; and when indeed there is no great danger of invasions while we have the sea covered with our ships, and maintain fifty thousand men in arms on our coasts.


— Samuel Johnson, review of An Impartial Account of the Invasion under William Duke of Normandy, and the consequences of it, with proper Remarks (1756), by Charles Parkin, A. M. Rector of Oxburgh in Norfolk. IN Johnson on Demand: Reviews, Prefaces, and Ghost-Writings, edited by O M Brack, Jr., and Robert DeMaria, Jr. (The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson, Volume XX; Yale University Press, 2019), pp. 347-348
— posted by Roger W. Smith

    March 2020









A reader of this post commented: “I don’t understand the purpose of this post. Can you explain?”

I should have made this more clear.

Samuel Johnson died in 1784. James Boswell’s Life of Johnson was published in 1791. Because of Boswell — primarily because of him — Johnson has been known mostly for his conversation, not his writings.

The late Donald Greene wrote about Boswell’s Life: “I can think of no other book that … has deterred so many intelligent people from making a firsthand acquaintance with the work of a very great writer and thinker.” A contemporary writer, Stephen Miller, in a 1999 essay wrote: “I know many people who have read — or dipped into — Bowell’s Life but have not read a word of Johnson.”

Therefore, I am trying to get Johnson’s writings in front of persons with a taste for good writing.

Boswell did a great service in preserving so much of Johnson’s conversation. He also wrote one of the great, if not the greatest, biographies of all time. Yet, his Johnson is often a caricature of himself. The supposedly reactionary thinker brilliant in conversation and unsurpassable in repartee known for his ability to get the best of his interlocutor on any conceivable subject.

Johnson was witty and quotable; he had a penetrating intellect. But one gets to know him a lot better from his various and voluminous output as a writer. And, he could be the opposite of mean-spirited. His kindly offices throughout his life to many persons and the help and encouragement he gave to writers, often ones younger and less well known than him, were not negligible and are apparent to serious students of his life and writings.



This brief excerpt, passage, to me illustrates what Johnson could do so well: express points cogently and forcefully with (in this case) the minimum of words required. In just two sentences, Johnson shows why the book under review is not worth reading. Most writers — including myself probably — would struggle to make the same point. I might find myself, if I were the reviewer, writing something like: This book is based upon a flawed premise. Yes, a book has to have point of view, but the author is arguing a point that was already made, and he really has nothing new to say. Many historical works have already gone over the same ground.

And so on.

One can see this facility in Johnson’s conversation. He could get to the point — to the essence of the argument — and unsnarl it much faster than his interlocutors and listeners. While they were still mulling over it, he already had seized upon the essence.






My high school English teacher, Robert Tighe, was once asked by a student how long should a paper be? As long as required to cover the subject, Mr. Tighe replied. No more and no less.

J. H. Plumb and Jason Goodwin on Defoe’s “A Journal of the Plague Year”







back cover - Signet Journal of the Plague Year





cover, Modern Library Journal of the Plague Year




Defoe wrote fast, reluctant to make revisions, in a plain English stripped of classical allusions, dosed with a strong draft of the Bible–a language brisk, direct, and powerful, as every reader will discover. Backed by careful research, his unfussy prose triumphantly carries off the mild literary fraud of A Journal, which at one level is the most striking historical document to come out of the plague. But it is really a novel, reveling in Defoe’s infallible ear for the cadences of real speech, and his revolutionary desire and ability to set them down.

The narrator’s own voice is a masterpiece of understated realism, adapting its very structure to reflect uncertainty, shock, and the faltering linkages of memory. Bills of mortality, baldly punctuating the text, tell their story … a woman’s shriek of “Oh! Death, Death, Death!” From the woeful cries of a neighborhood prophet, from the voice of an honest waterman or an old soldier, from the report of an apprentice collecting his master’s money from a victim of the plague, Defoe has distilled the clamor of terror. …

London has a face–“strangely alter’d.” … After Cromwell’s death, [it was] functioning as a city should: people had come there to earn a living, after all. The plague puts everything into reverse: the Thames is thick with ships–but not in trade, merely floating prisons, where people seek to escape the contagion. Commerce is still; grass grows in the busiest streets; money is dunked in a bucket of vinegar; friendships are interrupted; whatever makes city life profitable or pleasurable is now life-threatening. When the primal currents of commerce and affection have become conduits for disease, when sickening families are shut up in their houses, when the slightest contact is a source of dread, everyone is returned to the profound isolation–of despair, fear, death—that Defoe suspected to be our natural inheritance.

Defoe knew … the uses of adversity. The plague drives some to madness, some to wickedness; but the multitude make sacrifices for their families, struggle to survive, and take steps to preserve themselves and their loved ones when they can. … The city is a work of man, a maze of human connections. The court may escape, thankless, to Oxford, the wealthy pour down the Whitechapel Road to East Anglia and safety; but the real city people, to whom London is a universe, must dodge the pestilence that stalks them “like an armed Man.” They have lived in these streets, and now they die among them, but in the streets they have picked up, too, a kind of ineradicable toughness.


— Jason Goodwin, Introduction, A Journal of the Plague Year, by Daniel Defoe (Modern Library, 2001)



— posted by Roger W. Smith

    March 2020

“all that could conceal their distempers did it, … to prevent authority shutting up their houses; the poor common people, shut up their shops, finding indeed no trade”



Mayor Bill de Blasio warned at a news conference on Friday that officials would decide this weekend whether to impose a $500 fine on those flouting social-distancing rules during the coronavirus outbreak by gathering in large groups at parks and ignoring police orders to disperse.

The vast majority of New Yorkers have been respecting the rules, the mayor said, but officials have observed some violations.

Mr. de Blasio also said that a small number of houses of worship were continuing to hold religious services and that they risked fines or having their buildings permanently closed if the police caught them in congregations this weekend.


— “N.Y.P.D. may impose fines on people at parks and houses of worship.; As the weather gets warmer, New Yorkers may be itching to hang out together in New York City’s parks.” The New York Times, May 28 2020








But those were trifling things to what followed immediately after; for now the weather set in hot, and from the first week in June the infection spread in a dreadful manner, and the bills rose high; the articles of the fever, spotted-fever, and teeth began to swell; for all that could conceal their distempers did it, to prevent their neighbours shunning and refusing to converse with them, and also to prevent authority shutting up their houses; which, though it was not yet practised, yet was threatened, and people were extremely terrified at the thoughts of it. …

I now began to consider seriously with myself concerning my own case, and how I should dispose of myself; that is to say, whether I should resolve to stay in London or shut up my house and flee, as many of my neighbours did. … I had two important things before me: the one was the carrying on my business and shop, which was considerable, and in which was embarked all my effects in the world; and the other was the preservation of my life in so dismal a calamity as I saw apparently was coming upon the whole city, and which, however great it was, my fears perhaps, as well as other people’s, represented to be much greater than it could be. …

… the very Court, which was then gay and luxurious, put on a face of just concern for the public danger. All the plays and interludes which … had been set up, and began to increase among us, were forbid to act; the gaming-tables, public dancing-rooms, and music-houses, which multiplied and began to debauch the manners of the people, were shut up and suppressed; and the jack-puddings, merry-andrews, puppet-shows, rope-dancers, and such-like doings, which had bewitched the poor common people, shut up their shops, finding indeed no trade; for the minds of the people were agitated with other things, and a kind of sadness and horror at these things sat upon the countenances even of the common people. Death was before their eyes, and everybody began to think of their graves, not of mirth and diversions.

About June the Lord Mayor of London and the Court of Aldermen, as I have said, began more particularly to concern themselves for the regulation of the city.

The justices of Peace for Middlesex, by direction of the Secretary of State, had begun to shut up houses in the parishes of St Giles-in-the-Fields, St Martin, St Clement Danes, &c., and it was with good success; for in several streets where the plague broke out, upon strict guarding the houses that were infected, and taking care to bury those that died immediately after they were known to be dead, the plague ceased in those streets. …


— Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year (1722)



— posted by Roger W. Smith

   March 28, 2020

the dead-carts

I say they had dug several pits in another ground, when the distemper began to spread in our parish, and especially when the dead-carts began to go about, which was not, in our parish, till the beginning of August. Into these pits they had put perhaps fifty or sixty bodies each; then they made larger holes wherein they buried all that the cart brought in a week, which, by the middle to the end of August, came to from 200 to 400 a week; and they could not well dig them larger, because of the order of the magistrates confining them to leave no bodies within six feet of the surface; and the water coming on at about seventeen or eighteen feet, they could not well, I say, put more in one pit. But now, at the beginning of September, the plague raging in a dreadful manner, and the number of burials in our parish increasing to more than was ever buried in any parish about London of no larger extent, they ordered this dreadful gulf to be dug–for such it was, rather than a pit.
— Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year (1722)






“A refrigerated truck has been stationed outside to hold the bodies of the dead. Over the past 24 hours, New York City’s public hospital system said in a statement, 13 people at Elmhurst [Hospital Center] had died.”


— “One day, 13 deaths, and an overwhelmed city hospital.,” The New York Times, March 26, 2020



— Posted by Roger W. Smith

   March 26, 2020








In some British film that I was watching with my wife last night, there was a scene with a young woman playing the piano: Beethoven, Chopin, and another piece.

“I know that piece,” I said to my wife. Then, after a moment or two of concentration, I said, “It’s Schubert. One of his impromptus.”

Here it is. I find Schubert very appropriate for these incredibly sad times.

Also posted above is Liszt’s piano transcription of a song from Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise (Winter’s Journey): namely, “Wasserflut” (“Flood”).



— posted by Roger W. Smith

   March 22, 2020

“crisis managers”





Second Avenue 3-15-2020

Second Avenue, Sunday, March 15, 2020




I can’t speak for most people, but I assume that my behavior in response to the Coronavirus epidemic is not that uncommon.

My initial instincts a week or two ago — my thoughts then — were, I can’t eliminate all possibility of illness, control all circumstances. I will try to observe the recommend actions (such as washing my hands more frequently) and precautions, but I’m not going to shut down, or alter my daily routine.

Since then, the fears and warnings have been mounting steadily at an accelerating pace. I am taking the warnings and recommendations seriously and am planning to stay at home for the most part. And many activities such as concerts and classes have been canceled anyway.






On Thursday evening during the preceding week, before language classes were cancelled, I was seated on a bench in a hallway of the language school waiting for my class to begin. I was conversing with a fellow student.

I coughed once or twice.

Being very mindful of warnings regarding coughing in public places, I leaned over, turned away from my classmate, and covered my mouth.

“Are you ill?” an obnoxious woman seated across the hall with a friend said. When I didn’t answer right away, she repeated the question.

“I coughed,” I said. “That isn’t unusual. Are you trying to imply that I have an infection?”






I can’t stay indoors all the time, and I wouldn’t recommend it for healthy people, virus notwithstanding.

Yesterday I went for a walk in Manhattan. A beautiful, mild, sunny day. Sun drenched sidewalks.

I was walking downtown on Second Avenue in the 30’s.

I seem to have an allergic condition where, at any time, including times when I am well and don’t have a cold, the air can cause me to cough. It’s usually cold air, the effects of which I often experience the minute I go outside, or sometimes dust indoors.

It was approximately 1 p.m. There were very few pedestrians, and there was no one near me.

A gust of wind hit me, and I coughed once. It was barely noticeable.

I continued walking. I thought I heard someone say, angrily, “Cover your mouth!”

I walked a few more steps, then turned and looked backwards. Was the remark meant for me?

Apparently — in fact — it was. The only other people on the block were a woman and man standing together a half a block away. They were conversing, not walking.

It was the woman who had told me to cover my mouth.

The average city block in Manhattan is slightly over 260 feet long. The couple was more than 100 feet away from me when I coughed. I was in the open air when I coughed. Not near anyone. Not coughing on anyone or in their face.


Panics, disasters, and emergencies bring out all kinds of reactions and behaviors in people.

Good and bad. The best and the worst. Selfish and altruistic. Noble and petty.

Some persons exhibit increased concern and thoughtfulness for others and their welfare. Others use them as an occasion to exhibit traits of officiousness and pettiness which they feel a license to exhibit.

Such as taking out their anxieties and fears and obsessive tendencies on others who have nothing to do with them and no actual or conceivable relationship to any actual emergency.

They are taking their anxiety out on others and therefore increasing the level of everyone else’s anxiety.






The truth of the situation with these minders, these obnoxious persons, is that they see a crisis situation as an opportunity, almost an incentive, to pick on other people who didn’t create the situation and who have no more to do with it than they do.

There is no way to tell who one encounters in public might be infected. But let’s pick on anyone whom we don’t take to, or about whom something or other might give us the opportunity to show that we are on the lookout for infected persons. Got to keep our streets and classes disease free!

Shows we are on the watch.

We went for a walk in public despite the warnings. While we’re out, we’ll police the streets. Can’t have too few “hall monitors” watching the sidewalks for Coronavirus transmitters. We’re civic minded. No telling who might deserve a scolding.





A crisis brings out the magnanimous and the petty.

Some people are inherently mean.

A crisis gives them an incentive and what they regard as license to take out their mean impulses on the pretense that it’s for the common good. They view themselves as benefactors when it’s actually the opposite. Read, malefactor(s). They are doing harm.

Dissatisfaction with themselves and present conditions becomes disapproval of others.
— Roger W. Smith

   March 16, 2020








I recommend as reading at this time an unforgettable and totally engrossing book: A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe.



cover - A Journal of the Plague Year