Conjugating Lines of Beauty

David Dabydeen, Johnson’s Dictionary (Leeds, UK: Peepal Tree, 2013); 221 pages; ISBN: 9781845232184 (paperback).

• October 2014

David Dabydeen’s recent novel Johnson’s Dictionary is at once encyclopedic and rapturous in its illustration of the eighteenth-century anglophone world. While the narrative of Johnson’s Dictionary moves through multiple perspectives of eighteenth-century British society—from women seeking financial security, to slaves with special gifts, to a drunkard-artist in Demerara (British Guiana), to an out-of-luck Catholic overseer—Dabydeen’s prose radiates pleasure and erudition. This comes as no surprise, though, given Dabydeen’s prize-winning poetry and scholarly contributions, such as Hogarth’s Blacks: Images of Blacks in Eighteenth-Century English Art (1987) and Black Writers in Britain, 1760-1890 (1991), coedited with Paul Edwards. Johnson’s Dictionary is an extension of the Guyanan-born writer’s ongoing fascination with a period that witnessed the rise of both the African slave trade and the English novel. Dabydeen’s latest work does not simply invoke and refer to Samuel Johnson’s influential 1755 English dictionary; it is a provocative revision of how we should perceive what is putatively claimed as “English” language and culture. While emphasizing the intimate ties between the British colonies and the imperial metropole, Johnson’s Dictionary brims with the rhythms and stylistic inflections of Creole. The novel foregrounds culture that evolved alongside the plantation system and, in doing so, illustrates how the formation of the English language is contiguous with the Caribbean and its histories. Set against a historical landscape that brings eighteenth-century London and Demerara together, Johnson’s Dictionary presents prose and characters that grope for the lines of beauty cleaving to the sordid realities of commerce and empire.

A consideration of Dabydeen’s early scholarship on the presence of black characters in the work of William Hogarth—an English artist of the eighteenth century known for satirical and socially conscious illustrations—would be a useful point of entry into Johnson’s Dictionary. Readers encounter a fictionalized Hogarth in the first chapter of the novel and see him through the eyes of his slave, Cato:

Me, Cato, work for Massa Hogarth from the time he comes to the colony, fleeing debts or mistresses or zealots, who knows?—I don’t care for the gossip, I just think: what a foolish man to want to come to this swamp and snake-place call Demerara. For twenty years or more I work in plantation, but too much trouble—riots, hangings, oh you don’t want to hear—and I was so glad when plantation ruin, and me put up for sale, and Massa Hogarth buy me. (21)

The characterization of Demerara as a “snake-place” is striking, for it seems to allude to Hogarth’s description of the serpentine-line in The Analysis of Beauty (1753), a work that Dabydeen discusses in Hogarth’s Blacks. In The Analysis of Beauty, Hogarth describes how a serpentine-line might function in a drawing: the line “dips out of sight behind [an object in the middle], and returns again at the smaller end, not only giv[ing] play to the imagination and delight[ing] the eye, on that account; but inform[ing] it likewise of the quantity and variety of the contents.”The allusion to Hogarth’s serpentine-lines, by way of Cato’s description of his master in Demerara, gestures at what is to come later in the narrative: a number of eighteenth-century figures who have dipped out of sight—various figures who were either forgotten or deemed too trivial to be celebrated—but will return from the margins of English literary history; they’ll play with, delight, and instruct the imagination.

Cato’s voice quickly arrives after a third-person prologue, plunging the first-time reader into the novel’s unpredictable pacing. Overall, the narrative swings between first- and third-person perspectives. It peeks into vignettes and fragments of multiple lives—from slaves to servants to opportunists from the imperial metropole seeking to remake their lives in the Caribbean—thus Johnson’s Dictionary is not driven by a linear and monolithic plotline. The novel is a mosaic of plots and is attentive to the imaginative possibilities that lie among humble characters of the past—characters who simultaneously struggle to transcend beyond and relish in the gravity of lived experience. And sometimes this gravity manifests in the narrative’s pacing; there are moments that bog down with literary allusions, puns, extended metaphors, and historical references.

But it is precisely the topsy-turviness between the novel’s gravity and playful experimentations in language that showcases the thorny realities tied to artistic mastery. For one, there is the tension between privation and artistic production. As a beleaguered woman says in the novel’s prologue, “And what’s a star to me; I can’t eat it” (16). This inaugurates a series of characters in the novel who grapple with the meanings tied to mastery, in artistic pursuits and otherwise. Cato, for instance, likens his position to a box of tools: “Massa show me how to stretch the canvas, how to frame it. I have my own slave, which is my box of tools. If you put all their names together they sound like a Negro gospel choir—tenon saw, dovetail saw, bevel, spindle, chisel, dowel” (22). Cato’s reflection on his position as analogous to tools that construct the grounds for artistic production (or, metaphorically, the canvas for painting) adds an additional nuance to the line “Massa Hogarth buy me.” The fictional Hogarth doesn’t simply buy Cato; his achievements are made possible by Cato. The punning (and there is a great deal of punning throughout Johnson’s Dictionary) of buy/by posits the extent to which artistic production in eighteenth-century England is linked to the spoils of imperial expansion and the slave trade. Put differently, Cato’s perspective touches on various degrees to which slavery constituted the conditions for artistic production in the British Empire. This seems to stem from Dabydeen’s recurring interest in the relationship between slavery and artistic production. He observes in Hogarth’s Blacks, “The term ‘patron’ still had [in the eighteenth century] the dual meaning of ‘owner of slaves’ and ‘supporter of the arts’ for some of the outstanding connoisseurs and collectors of the age were heavily involved in the slave trade.”2

Another character in Johnson’s Dictionary who “gives play to the imagination”—to return to a line from The Analysis of Beauty—is Francis. This character is inspired by the historical Francis Barber, who was born in Jamaica and later brought to London in the mid-eighteenth century. Barber became a servant to Samuel Johnson and assisted the writer during his revision of the dictionary. Dabydeen’s fictional Francis is situated in Demerara and is the slave of Dr. Gladstone. Francis becomes mesmerized by his master’s copy of Johnson’s Dictionary. He recounts one of his lessons with Dr. Gladstone, who quotes another Francis, Francis Bacon: “The best part of beauty is that which a picture cannot express” (67). This moment clues us in to Dabydeen’s reverence for and departure from Hogarthian aesthetics. Dabydeen is interested in describing a beauty of the eighteenth century that cannot be expressed pictorially like Hogarth’s etchings. Francis, whose development is figured prominently throughout Johnson’s Dictionary, represents a version of Hogarth’s serpentine-line that’s reimagined through the semantics of words and poetics of voice. Francis promises to show “how language stay, how it does congeal then suddenly conjugate, how it turvy and yet straight, true and seeming, yeaing and naying in one breath” (204). In this regard, Johnson’s Dictionary does not simply account for the intertwined histories of Demerara and London; it produces a lexicon for describing another aesthetic sensibility.

There is still much to be said about the characters who cross paths with, but occupy fewer pages than, Francis. For instance, there is a fascinating politics that is represented in conversations between Francis and an obeah woman, Miriam. Scenes with these two characters develop the relationship between The Tempest’s Sycorax and Caliban into two perspectives on autonomy and art. Johnson’s Dictionary, in short, merits longer, more sustained studies by writers, creative or academic. Whether you follow a character into history or build an interpretation around literary allusions, Johnson’s Dictionary contains many lines of beauty that can be the grounds for new lines of inquiry.


Kristina Huang is currently working on her doctoral dissertation, which focuses on the aesthetics and political philosophies in Afro-British writings of the long eighteenth century. She is a student and teacher at the City University of New York.


Quoted in Timothy M. Costelloe, The British Aesthetic Tradition: From Shaftesbury to Wittgenstein (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 66.

David Dabydeen, Hogarth’s Blacks: Images of Blacks in Eighteenth-Century English Art (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987), 88.


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